Theatre

Animal Magnetism

John Bemrose April 24 2000
Theatre

Animal Magnetism

John Bemrose April 24 2000

Animal Magnetism

Theatre

John Bemrose

It’s only the first scene of the musical, but as the giraffes trek with slow majesty across the stage, into the flooding light of an African dawn, its clear something extraordinary is happening. Other animals are moving down the aisles of the theatre—an elephant, a cheetah, gazelles, hyenas— while coloured birds fill the air overhead, seemingly buoyed by the thrilling cries of African singers. Of course, these aren’t really animals. The giraffes are portrayed by actors on stilts. The cheetah is a large puppet controlled by a woman whose legs double as the beasts hind ones. Yet the very transparency of the illusion is what makes it all so moving. The scene seems to touch some animistic nerve, stirring

memories of our ancient oneness with the animal kingdom.

The Lion King has arrived. After triumphant openings in four other cities, the hit musical recently touched down at Toronto’s Princess ofWales Theatre. It is now in previews and opens on April 25 for a scheduled 22-month run. The Disney spectacular, first mounted for $15 million (U.S.) at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre in November, 1997, is based on the wildly successful 1994 animated film, and features music by Elton John, among others. Since that opening, The Lion King has been playing to standing-room-only houses, and a scalper’s ticket can cost a tidy $1,000. The versions of the show now filling theatres in Tokyo, Osaka and London are, like the Toronto incarnation, identical to the one in New York. The Toronto producers, Ed and David Mirvish, beat out Chicago and Los Angeles to get the rights. Under the watchful eye of Disney’s creative team led by New York director Julie Taymor, The Lion King is being performed largely by Canadians.

After thrilling audiences in three other countries, The Lion King is about to enrapture Canada

It took 11 months and a coast-to-coast search— more than 6,000 hours of auditions all told—to find them all. No doubt, the process inspired many an amateur crooner to dream of overnight success. But in the end, virtually all of the 40 Canadians who were chosen for the 48-member cast (the rest are South Africans and Americans) had at least some professional acting, singing or dancing experience. Still, being in The Lion King is a huge jump for someone like Steven Allerick. The Toronto television actor is playing the coveted role of Simba, the lion prince who sets out to avenge the bloody theft of his father’s throne by his wicked uncle, Scar.

Allerick, 24, is definitely leading-man material. He recalls a Caribbean Keanu Reeves, his hair moussed up into points like black meringue. Until The Lion King, Allerick had had only small roles in TV dramas such as Peter Bench ley’s Amazon. And he had never acted onstage professionally. “I never aspired to do musical theatre,” he says, “and when I heard about the auditions I thought there was no way I would get the part.” In fact, Allerick didn’t even bother trying out until he was called by The Lion Kings casting director, Stephanie Gorin, who

remembered him from an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to get into the hit musical Rent. Allerick, who allows he has “an OK voice,” went through four gruelling auditions, the last of them in New York, before he was offered the role. “I was walking on Cloud 9,” recalls the actor, who lives at home with his parents. “But my mother, Aleñe, was even more excited. She changed the message on our answering machine to play a few bars of [the musical’s big hit] Can You Feel the Love TonightF Allerick has already become a star because of The Lion King—fans have been turning up at the stage door. But for Toronto’s Saskia Garel, who plays his love interest, Nala, celebrity is nothing new. Garel, 30, is known mainly as a rhythm and blues singer, half of the popular recording duo Love and Sas. “I thought I was probably too light for the part,” she says, touching the skin on her forearm in reference to the casting needs of the show, which dictate that most of its performers be of African descent. She wasn’t too light, and in fact resembles Allerick uncannily. “We could be brother and sister,” she says with a laugh, adding, “we both grew up in [the Toronto neighbourhood of] Scarborough, we’re both of mixed Jamaican and Chinese background—it’s really kind of bizarre. ” A veteran of last year’s Toronto production of Rent, Garel knows better than most that life inside a mega-musical is not all glamour. “I love the family feeling that develops between cast members, but on the other hand, you hardly ever get to see your real family and friends.

It took 6,000 hours of auditions to recruit the mostly Canadian cast

When they’re free, you’re performing or sleeping or going to the gym. It’s very isolating.”

In joining The Lion King, Allerick and Garel have become part of Disney’s strategy to capitalize on the success of its animated films by giving them a second life on the stage. The company has gone this route before with Beauty and the Beast. But while that stage version is a virtual clone of the film, Disney took a radical step with The Lion King va hiring Taymor. Like Canada’s Robert Lepage, she believes in pushing live drama away from naturalism towards something more imagistic and surreal. “The freedom of theatre is mind-boggling if you stay away from the literal,” she says. “There’s a need to revitalize its poetic nature.” Taymor, who recendy directed the film Titus, has kept most of the original characters and story line of the animated film. But to the original score by John and lyricist Tim Rice she has added new songs by that team, as well as music from the animated feature’s follow-up. And she has deepened the tale’s psychological complexity.

Taymor was also determined that her performers would be seen, not hidden away inside animal costumes. “Audiences relish the artifice behind theatre,” she argues. “When we see a person actually manipulating an inanimate object like a puppet and making it come alive, the duality moves us. Hidden special effects lack humanity, but when the human spirit visibly animates an object, we experience a special, almost life-giving connec§ tion.” In the end, Taymor has cre\ ated one of the most original, com| plex spectacles ever seen on the I musical stage. It involves the use of I more than 100 puppets of various £ sizes and styles—even shadow puppets—plus a large assortment of masks and props.

Learning to play a dual animal-human role has been a challenge for the performers. The highly respected Toronto-based actor Richard McMillan plays Scar with a mask that sometimes rides majestically above his head, but which slides down over his face whenever he becomes more literally lion-like. To help prepare for the role, McMillan, 49, went to the zoo to observe the big cats. “They taught me attitude,” he says, “attitude through strength. They have a power that’s simply there; they don’t have to show it. It’s just there in all its beautiful rawness and naturalness.” Yet the real challenge for McMillan may not be so much constructing his role as surviving it. McMillans costume weighs more than 16 kg, much of it concentrated in die belt of batteries that power his mike and mask. McMillan says he is suffering from lower back trouble for the first time in his life—no doubt aggravated by having to endure a wire-controlled fall of 4.5 m to the stage, where he lands squarely on his back.

Difficulties of another kind have plagued Jonathan Wilson, a native of Oshawa, Ont., who plays Timon, a wisecracking meerkat (a kind of cross between a groundhog and a cat). The comic heart of the show, Timon is a chin-high puppet. “He’s a meerkat, but he’s also Jewish and from New York,” notes Wilson, 35, who has performed stand-up comedy with the Second City troupe, as well as his own one-man play, My Own Private Oshawa. But it’s been hard learning to channel his entertainer instincts through Timon, says Wilson, who wears a green costume, green makeup and a green wig to blend into the background. “If I’m successful, people won’t notice me, even if I do look like a big piece of broccoli.” Being attached to another body who gets all the laughs is tough, he says, though he was warned of such difficulties by the actor who played Timon in the New York show. “He told me, ‘You’re gonna want to quit, you’re gonna cry, you’re gonna hate and curse this puppet. You’re gonna bond with this puppet. You’re gonna think you know it. And you’re gonna crash and burn and hate it again.’ And he was absolutely right,” Wilson says. “It’s been a real rollercoaster ride. Some nights after an exhausting show, I can’t believe the feeling of freedom when I walk out of here without him.”

Of course, the audience is usually unaware of such agonies. By the time it opens officially, the Toronto Lion King will no doubt be running as smoothly as the very similar versions in London or Tokyo. Cynics may complain that such cloned shows represent the McDonaldization of theatre. But to the performers singing their hearts out, not to mention the audiences who invariably roar their approval, such considerations are about as meaningful as a few flea bites to a pride of lions.