Nancy Sasso Janis
The joy was evident as the young members of the Zulu cast took to the stage at Newtown High School on Thursday for opening night of ‘Disney’s The Lion King, Jr.’ The 65 performers from the Newtown area were clearly having the time of their young lives as they were taking part in this high quality production. There was probably even more joy in the packed house as the youngest audience members screamed with delight when their friends, whether adults for their introductory remarks or children making their entrances, entered the spotlight. The opening number, the magnificent “Circle of Life,” brought a tear to many an adult eye, including mine, and the finale was goose bump inducing.
NewArts Newtown Musicals chose ‘Disney’s The Lion King, Jr.’ for the younger performers (aged 5 to 13) involved with the 1214 Foundation. Because it is based on the Broadway production directed by Julie Taymor, it demands a beautiful spectacle of visual imagery. In this aspect, NewArts excels and the actors rise to the greatness around them in every way.
The junior version of the show includes many of the musical numbers from the film and those written for the full stage version. Music and lyrics were written by Elton John and Tim Rice with additional music and lyrics by Lebo M and Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin and Hans Zimmer. The book was written by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi. “The Morning Report” is long gone, and “One By One” that was adapted as the rousing African-styled entre act sung by the chorus is also cut. The darkest elements of the story seemed to have been softened a bit and a number called “Luau Hawaiian Treat” written by Wil Van Dyke has been added. One line of “It’s A Small World” is thrown in as well. All the classic numbers are here and the kids sang the authentic lyrics with gusto under the beautiful and caring direction of music director Brett Boles.
Michael Unger returns to direct this huge group of dedicated young actors, as well as the more than 60 area students that will open on Friday with the Swahili cast. While he had help of assistant director Sarah Jane Schostack to wrangle all of their energy, this still must have been an exhausting task that he undertook with love. The kids clearly adore this talented professional that also is credited as the producer. Scotty McCreery is the production sponsor and Van Dean sat a few rows in front of me to enjoy the first performance of the show for which he served as production consultant.
Kayla Verga was an animated Rafiki in a fabulous costume. Temidayo Garritano will play the evil Scar with both casts and he does it very well. Eliza Roth had good comic timing as the bird Zazu who must keep watch over the young Simba (played by the adorable Matthew Hoekenga.) Virginia Grabovsky was the young female cub Nala.
Lindsay Dievert played Simba’s mother Sarabi and Isabella Correia played the mother of Nala, Sarafina. The three lead hyenas were played by Sophia Zimmerman (Banzai,) Joan Gogliettino (Shenzi) and Jacob Shuman (as the hysterical Ed.) Max DiMeglio was a very funny Timon and Sammy Vertucci was the loveable Pumbaa.
C.J. Hoekenga was greeted with screams when he entered as the adult Simba and Annelise Raedy sang beautifully as the grown up Nala. The lioness and hyena choruses performed well together, as did all the members of the large ensemble.
The ‘Liberty Smith’ set from last weekend has been transformed into a colorful beauty by Lindsay Fuori. The hanging panels feature a cheerful tribal design, while the revolving section and the raised platform remain and are once again used well. Mitchell Girgasky designed the lighting (with his mentor G. Benjamin Swope) that enhances the set, including the helpful assistance that allows the large animal puppets to get back up the side aisles without incident. The largest of these charming puppets are carried upon the bodies of ensemble members, while birds are attached to long sticks and gazelles are held by the actors. The puppets were designed by Eric Greto, who is a 19 year old student from Sandy Hook.
The costumes designed by Caity Mulkearns feature African dresses and shorts and top outfits enhanced with some small headpieces for the animal parts. They allowed the actors to move but are still effective. The hyenas look perfect in gray hoodies with black accents. The impressive make up was designed by Joseph Dulude II. The young dancers mastered the authentic choreography by Shannon Lewis and they sounded their best thanks to sound designed by Sean Sonntag with the help of his mentor David Bullard.
After the standing ovation at the curtain call, a young audience member seated behind me asked her parent, “Can we stay and see it again?” Luckily, there are plenty of remaining opportunities to see this inspiring production. Zulu cast is on stage Sat 7PM and Sun 12PM, Swahili cast is on stage Friday 7PM, Sat 2PM and Sun 5PM. There is assigned seating and tickets are available online at https://newarts.booktix.com All proceeds go to NewArts Newtown Musicals to be able to continue this important work for the Newtown community.