A cast of 43 local children to perform Disney musical
Published in the July 19 – August 1, 2017 issue of Gilroy Life
By Marty Cheek
The Gilroy High School Theater stage transformed into an African savanna with wild animals telling the story of Simba in the hit musical “The Lion King” that opened July 14.
Through the Gilroy Parks and Recreation Department’s summer theater program, a cast of 43 actors ages six to 14 have been busy rehearsing the “junior” version of the Tony Award-winning show, which was based on Disney’ 1994 animated feature film. The performers come from Gilroy, San Martin, Morgan Hill and Hollister, and many of them dazzled Morgan Hill’s Independence Day Parade crowds on a float when they performed songs and dances from the musical play.
“Our show is a condensed version of the Broadway show,” said Hilary Little, the director.
Popular songs performed in “The Lion King, Jr.” that audiences will be familiar with from the film include “Hakuna Matata,” “The Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” Other songs were written for the Broadway musical version and include “They Live in You” and “Shadowlands.”
“We’ve got some Broadway songs I think are prettier than those in the movie, actually,” Little said. “They’re just gorgeous. It’s nice when audiences come and are given songs they’re not expecting.”
The story is set in the Pride Lands of Africa and tells the tale about a young cub lion named Simba, the song of King Mufasa, who must learn the responsibilities of ruling over the animal kingdom. Mufasa’s younger brother, Scar, seeks the throne and plots to kill Mufasa and Simba to gain power. Simba has to grow up to face the threat of his uncle.
“I often joke that it’s Disney’s version of ‘Hamlet,'” Little said. “It’s very dark considering it’s a cartoon. It’s very intense for an animated feature. That’s the way things are going. You can’t have things that are happy-go-lucky all the time.”
Morgan Hill resident Emily Pember plays “Nala,” Simba’s lioness friend in the story, and has enjoyed the process of learning the part and working with other performers. The 15-year-old, who will be a sophomore at Live Oak High School this fall, has appeared in recent South Valley Civic Theatre shows including “Footloose,” “The Music Man,” and “The Little Mermaid.”
“’The Lion King’ has really good music, and overall it’s just really cool to be in such a classic Disney musical,” she said. “Nala is really strong and independent, even when she falls in love with Simba.”
Morgan Hill resident Jenna Hernandez, 14, plays the role of “Rafiki,” a mandrill who serves as shaman and advisor to Mufasa and Simba. She will be a freshman at Live Oak High School this fall.
“’The Lion King’ has wonderful characters, music and costumes,” she said. I’m having a great time getting ready for the show and spending time with my friends at rehearsals.”
She described her character as “super fun” to play.
“Rafiki is funny, a little crazy, and a spiritual guide,” she said. “I like mixing those qualities together to make the character my own.”
This is the third musical Little has directed through the Gilroy Parks and Recreation Department. The first was in 2015 with “Honk!” a musical version of the Hans Christian Andersen story of “The Ugly Duckling.” Last year she directed the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast.” As a child, she performed in the Gilroy Parks and Recreation shows and is proud to now be directing local children in shows with the city’s popular summer program.
Little selected “The Lion King” because family audiences love the Disney film and she wanted to introduce them to more musical material from the Broadway show.
“Here we’ve got something special where we can bring this super big, larger-than life spectacular production, scaled back just a little bit for younger actors, and put it on stage for a local audience,” she said.
The animal costumes the children wear will impress audiences, she said. Some were found at yard sales or online while others were made by the parents of children in the show.
“We took inspiration from the Broadway show where one of the cool things is that a lot of the characters are performed by actors using these intricate puppets,” Little said. “For us, we couldn’t get those Broadway-worthy puppets, so we’re having to do something a little more imaginative and creative. I came up with a few of the designs myself and some of them we got from other companies when we searched online for a look that would be cohesive and work well for our younger actors.”
The show’s story encourages children to be courageous in their lives and take action to overcome the obstacles the world might put in their way, she said.
“’The Lion King’s’ message is about knowing who you are and connecting with your family roots and taking pride in your past and not escaping when things get difficult,” she said. “It’s about confronting your demons and taking ownership of your life.”