SCHENECTADY, N.Y. >> Whether it's by film (1994) or on stage (1997) "The Lion King" has been an important part of our culture for over 20 continuous years.
The national tour of "The Lion King," which arrives Tuedsay at Proctors Theatre for a four-week visit, indicates the hold the Disney show has on the public. This is the show's second visit to Proctors and it's still a tough ticket to get.
This appeal is not unusual. The musical, with a score by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, has been on Broadway for 19 years and still plays to capacity.
The film has grossed $100 million world-wide and the stage version of "The Lion King" has played in almost every country in the world — there is a production opening in China this spring — and continues to open or revisit major cities.
"Lion King" associate director John Stefaniuk doesn't think it odd that the show appeals to all ages and every culture.
"It's difficult for anyone not to be swept away by the spectacle, the music, the larger-than-life puppetry and the relationships. It's a beautiful production," he said by telephone from Amsterdam, where he is casting for a production which will open in Holland this October.
He reveals what might be the most important reason for the show's universal appeal, saying, "At the core of any incredible piece of theater is a wonderful story told honestly. With this show people identify with the characters and the journey they each must take. It touches a chord in everyone's life."
He agrees that the story about Simba, a young lion who goes into self-exile after he believes he was the cause of his father's death, is time-honored. Simba has been compared to Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and his return is reminiscent of the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Simba's uncle, the evil Scar, being the cause of the death of his brother the king, Mufasa, recalls the story of Cain and Abel. It is also similar to the core plot in "Hamlet." Stefaniuk says Scar's first words "Life is not fair, I shall never be king," and his later actions to become king can be compared to Shakespeare's great villain "Richard III."
That, he says, is one reason he generally casts powerful actors with classical acting experience as Scar. Indeed, he points to the variety of performance styles in the show as part of its appeal. "The actors are a melting pot of different experiences," he says.
Though it's not rigid, he says there is a pattern to selecting the performers.
"We cast heavy hitters from the world of classical theater for the roles of Scar and Mufasa," Stefaniuk explained. "Beside them we have the incredible voices of our South African performers (there is a rule that each production cast at least 6 actors from South Africa). Next to them we have the skilled comedic talents that add fun and lightness to other moments. Put them all together and you can't help but have complete success."
As for his role in unifying the performance styles to find clarity in the material he says simply, "I allow the actors to bring to the plate what they have to offer. I work with them so they can discover their own life experiences that are similar to the character they are playing. Then I leave it to each actor to discover how each moment should be expressed with truth and honesty.
"Remember this is not a play about furry animals. It's about the quest and struggle each animal goes through. It's the same struggles we all go through,"
Stefaniuk says his most important task "is to be certain every audience at every show sees the show it was meant to be. That doesn't mean it has to be replicated every night. If we find the essence of the characters and the truth within the story it will never seem like a museum piece.
"I am proud of the cast coming to your theater. They understand the honor and the privilege of getting to perform the story of 'The Lion King' every night."
What: "The Lion King." Music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, with additional music and lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, Hans Zimmer. Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, adapted from the screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton
When: Tuesday through April 17. Evenings — Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30; Thursday through Saturday at 8; Sunday (except April 17) at 6:30, Matinees — Saturday at 2; Sunday at 1
Where: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady, N.Y.
How: (518) 346-6204; proctors.org