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‘The Lion King’ didn’t become one of the most successful Disney animated movies of all time because of its ‘Hamlet’-like storyline. At the core of the still-relevant movie was a selection of catchy, kick-ass music, sung by anthropomorphic animals. So how could a staged version, with visible human actors, bring that Disney magic to life?
If you ask UC Irvine alumna and original and current company member Keena Smith what makes the show so successful, she’ll instantly point to the creative ‘genius’ of Julie Taymor, who uses African-like masks, Bunraku Japanese puppetry, shadow puppetry and visible actors to recreate ‘Lion King’ in a way that is initially jarring and unnatural, but eventually sensuously satisfying.
‘When the human spirit visibly animates an object, we experience a special, almost life-giving connection. We become engaged by both the method of storytelling as well as the story itself,’ Taymor said.
‘You see people behind the puppets and it just [brings people] to tears because you see how vulnerable this really is,’ Smith said. ‘You can be empathetic for the people.’
Since the ‘Lion King’ musical first thrilled audiences in Minneapolis, Minn. in 1997 and Los Angeles in 2000, the show has traveled from Tampa to Tokyo. The Disney magic returns to Los Angeles at the Pantages Theatre until Jan. 7 with the cheap seats going for $15.
Filling out a two-and-a-half-hour show from an 89-minute movie requires additional songs, dancing and engaging artistic sequences. While the puppetry is delightful and surprisingly effective, a shadow puppetry sequence involving Scar killing a scurrying mouse had the puppetry and the mouse sound effects noticeably out of sync. Also puzzling is a disco departure from a song Scar sings with his hyenas about killing his brother. Since when is disco the genre of choice for vengeful murderers?
Still, the ‘Lion King’ music is, for the most part, faithful to the movie in melody and spirit. Despite songs like ‘Morning Report’ which are clearly directed at young children, warm harmonies in other numbers like ‘Shadowland’ more than make up for any musical missteps.
After the first Los Angeles homecoming show ended, Smith commented that ‘we’re so excited to be back in L.A., I’m still on cloud nine right now.’
With 25 different types of animals making appearances throughout the show, it may not be surprising that Smith, who received her MFA in dance at UCI in 1998, makes 18 costume changes during each performance.
Although she plays a lioness, a hyena and many other animals eight shows a week, she most enjoys playing the gazelle. ‘I think [it’s] because I always started off the show as a gazelle and I’ve been doing this show for six years,’ Smith said.
Smith auditioned in a Burbank studio along with about 200 other girls dancing the lioness chant, a modern dance in which lionesses hunt gazelle.
After the show left Los Angeles in its first run at the Pantages, Smith stayed on tour with the company for six years, interrupted only by a six-month stint with the New York ‘Lion King’ production.
At UCI, Smith studied modern dance and ballet with current faculty member Donald McKayle, a modern dance and choreography professor that Smith excitedly mentioned as her most memorable.
When asked about how Smith was as a student, McKayle said, ‘Smith is an incandescent performer. She has a prodigious technique and a vibrant personality that lights up the stage.’
Smith will continue to perform with the ‘Lion King’ company as it returns to the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles for seven more weeks.
Whether anteaters see ‘Lion King’ to support a successful fellow graduate or just to witness a mostly successful reinvention of the movie, they will find a show that has arguably lost none of the punch and musical goodies that made it so successful in the first place.

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