BETHLEHEM — While audiences have to wait until this July for the live-action adaptation of the 1994 film, “The Lion King,” residents could flock to the Bethlehem Central Middle School this week for an ambitious light production called “The Lion King Jr.”
Performances are scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 17 and Friday, Jan. 18 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 19 at 2 and 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 20 at 2 p.m. Adult tickets are $8 and students, faculty and senior citizens are $5; sales are happening at the BCMS entrance lobby and also 1.5 hours before each performance, if it is not sold out yet.
Married couple Lindsay and Jason Dashew are the director and musical director respectively, the former in charge of direction and choreography, and the latter helming the musical aspects. Katie Daly serves as the technical director and auditions for roles occurred last October.
Saying that “The Lion King Jr.” largely follows the original film albeit with some songs cut and “lighter” content, Lindsay said this musical was chosen because “we always try to choose shows that are family-friendly. We know we have a younger audience and this would be great for peers, kids and families. We were looking for something that’s going to appeal to the large group of varying ages — grandparents and three year olds would like it.”
When asked why she was personally drawn to the material, Lindsay said, “There’s something magical about ‘The Lion King.’ When I saw it on Broadway a long time ago, when those animals started walking through the audience and pass you, I remembered gasping and the magic of it all. That’s a really nice thing to bring to kids and have them experience it. It’s also a beautiful story.”
Both the film and school musical chronicle the rise of Simba, a young lion who will succeed his father, Mufasa, as King of the Pride Lands. But after Simba’s malevolent uncle, Scar, kills Mufasa and tricks Simba into believing he caused it, Simba flees and encounters meerkat Timon and warthog Pumba who help mature him into a grown lion who eventually returns to confront Scar.
The seemingly-infinite number of props and animal-themed costumes were mostly rented from sources beyond the Capital District, including the Texas-based company Theater By Design; the Coal City School District in Coal City, Illinois; and a middle school in Glastonbury, Connecticut. “We’ve rented most of our costumes because we knew it was a huge show,” said Lindsay. “We never really did that before but they had stuff available, and we don’t have much storage here.”
While attending a rehearsal on Wednesday, Jan. 9, the production value alone appeared impressive with constant set changes, children in animal costumes flocking around like it was the Bronx Zoo, vivid jungle-themed colored lights to evoke the animated African landscape, and the sounds of Jason Dashew at the piano echoing throughout the theater. Also, familiar songs like “The Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata” were a nostalgic treasure to the ears. Students assembled position as they spoke and sang their lines, and worked to stay in rhythm. With so much kinetic energy all around, it was almost hard to forget that these were just middle-schoolers — their innocence was perhaps best encapsulated by when a young girl in a zebra costume turned to ask, “What sound does a zebra even make?” and was answered with a shrug from her castmate.
BCMS’ production comprises of over 100 parents, around 80 crew members, and 80 cast members.
Concerning the former, Lindsay said the parents do “the largest share of the work like costumes, hair, makeup, and props, and also help build sets, work as ushers, run ticket sales, serve refreshments, and promote publicity for us. We rely very heavily on the parents and that’s why I see it as a community event because it brings everyone together.”
Regarding the crew who runs the lights, sounds, microphones and set changes, Lindsay perceived them as “integral […] Running crew is all students, there’s never an adult on stage when moving the sets. The students take ownership of it so it’s not all just the actors. It allows experience for everybody and we try to provide opportunities as some don’t want to be on stage and prefer doing makeup or lighting design or more.”
But for those who seek the direct spotlight, messages of humility and enthusiasm stood center stage.
Molly Kantrowitz, a seventh-grader who plays young Nala, said, “I want to be a part of this production because it’s a good experience and it’s really fun being around friends. Young Nala is a fun, sassy character and I’m so excited to play her.”
The older version of Nala is played by Norah Johnson, also a seventh grader, who said, “I just really like the way Nala acts, she’s not intimidated by anything, and she stands up for herself. She’s like a feminist, and I’m really excited and glad I got to be in the show.”
Ben Laderas, a seventh grader too who portrays young Simba, chimed in, “I thought it was a really cool musical and I’ve always wanted to do ‘The Lion King.’ It’s my father’s favorite Disney movie.”
Some of the students — like Audri Henson who plays Sarabi and Sarah Bernasconi who portrays Rafiki — are about to start high school in the fall and have already expressed their aspirations to possibly continue doing theater there. “I want them to just keep going,” Lindsay said. “My husband and I are also involved in all the shows in the high school and we’ll continue to work with them for the next four years. They’re a great group of kids and I hope they do continue on.”
But when asked how she feels about handling so many kids, costumes and props on a small stage in this production, she said that she sees middle school shows as more of an opportunity to teach the students more about theater, instead of just putting up a show, “I enjoy being a part of many of the students’ first experience at theater with a show this size and they get to learn more about how a rehearsal functions and the terminology stage actors use.”
She concluded, “It’s been a great experience and I want to remind people that if they haven’t bought their tickets yet, try not to do that at the door on the day of the performance. Get them before they run out!”