'The Lion King' returns to Baltimore with its uplifting story, catchy music and intricate puppets

Cheetah and giraffes in a scene from "The Lion King" on tour.
Cheetah and giraffes in a scene from "The Lion King" on tour. (Joan Marcus)

When the sun first rose on Pride Rock 20 years ago at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York, as a mandrill named Rafiki summoned all the animals to welcome Simba, newborn lion cub of King Mufasa, the sight caused a stir. It’s still stirring.

Since that opening night on Nov. 13, 1997, “The Lion King” went on to become, at $1 billion-plus, the highest-grossing production in Broadway history; it ranks as the third-longest-running show there.


But this musical, based on the 1994 Disney animated film, could hardly be contained to the Great White Way, where it continues to draw crowds (it moved to the Minskoff Theatre in 2006). “The Lion King” has also been touring constantly for 15 years.

The latest traveling production opens a four-week run Thursday at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, which previously hosted the show in 2005 and 2011.


Tickets for this visit “have sold as fast or faster than anything we’ve had,” says Ron Legler, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, home of the Hippodrome. “The show was in Baltimore six years ago, and now there’s a 6-year-old dying to see ‘Lion King.’”

This version of the show has undergone a few tweaks to make it more adaptable on the road. It can now be presented in theaters that previously couldn’t accommodate such a large-scale work, with its famously inventive costumes and puppetry designed by Julie Taymor.

“I don’t think audiences will notice any difference with this production,” Legler says. “It’s still a big show — 16 semis will be loading in over the weekend. It’s more about technological change and finding more efficient ways to do things. Technology has changed so much since the show opened.”

The puppet supervisor for "The Lion King" on tour, Michael Reilly.
The puppet supervisor for "The Lion King" on tour, Michael Reilly. (Selena Moshell)

What hasn’t changed is the apparently limitless appeal of “The Lion King,” fueled by such popular songs as “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” — written by Elton John and Tim Rice — that were part of the original animated movie score. For the stage musical, several more numbers were added, most of them by South African composer Lebo M.


In addition to the long Broadway run and the North American tours, the musical has had two dozen productions around the globe, reaching more than 90 million people in all. The show’s accountants can certainly feel the love every night — in 2014, Disney reported that worldwide earnings hit $6.2 billion, giving “The Lion King” the highest total box office figure for any entertainment production in any medium.

That there is gold in the saga of the lion cub and his tribulations is reconfirmed by Disney’s decision to shoot a live-action remake of the original movie. It’s set for release in 2019, starring such notables as Beyonce, Donald Glover, James Earl Jones and John Oliver.

Meanwhile, the stage musical roars on.

“I don’t ever see an end to this show,” says Legler.

That wouldn’t surprise Baltimore-born actor Keith Bennett. He joined the original Broadway production about a year after it opened, the second actor to portray Banzai, one of the shifty hyenas who aid Mufasa’s jealous brother Scar in his scheme to become king.

Bennett’s playing Banzai again in the current tour cast (“The role is tailor-made for me,” he says), and still relishing what has become something of a good luck assignment for him.

After starting a family, the actor left “The Lion King” on Broadway for a career in real estate in Florida. Then came the economic downturn in 2008.

Bennett was heading for bankruptcy when he learned about a production of “The Lion King” being put together in Las Vegas. He auditioned for his old part, and was soon back on the boards as Banzai in a 2009 production that — naturally — broke a record, too: The Las Vegas “Lion King” ran longer (31 months) than in any other American city outside New York.

And now Bennett’s Banzai is part of the newly reconfigured road version of the show, unveiled a couple weeks ago in Syracuse, N.Y. It features some “enhanced, kick-butt dancing,” Bennett says, but otherwise is the same “Lion King,” as much onstage as in the wings.

“There’s a choreography to everything backstage,” Bennett says, “where all the technicians do so much to present what the audience sees.”

Some of those technicians are responsible for the most celebrated visual element, the costume design by Taymor, the production’s director.

“What she did is some kind of magic,” says the tour’s puppet master, Michael Reilly. “It’s what she calls the dual event — the costumes are human and animal at the same time.”

In some cases, a mask is worn stationary above the head (“The actor’s tools are their face and voice; we don’t hide them,” Reilly says). Scar’s mask is mechanical, allowing for considerable manipulation.

Other roles involve a combination of costume and puppetry.

“We don’t hire puppeteers for the production,” Reilly says. “We hire dancers, singers and actors, and teach them the puppets. It’s great fun to get them up on giraffe stilts and see how quickly they take to it. To this day, in the opening scene, as soon as I see the 12-foot-tall giraffe clear the wings, it’s pretty exhilarating.”

Buyi Zama as Rafiki in "The Lion King" tour.
Buyi Zama as Rafiki in "The Lion King" tour. (Joan Marcus)

Other costumes include a cheetah where much of the animal, including the front legs, is a sizable puppet manipulated by the actor, whose own legs provide the rest. In the case of zebras, actors supply the front legs, the puppet the back ones.

For Banzai and the other hyenas, a mask projects in front of the actors’ bodies.

“It’s very detailed,” Bennett says of the costume. “And it’s hard to do. You’ve got to come to an understanding with that puppet and get it to morph to your body. We get very physical with these instruments, shall I say. So l love the puppet department. God bless them, they’re always standing by.”

That’s because the puppets are anything but indestructible.

“At every single show something happens,” says Reilly, who has worked 11 years on “The Lion King” tour. “Even today, some things come up and you go, OK, that never happened before.”

Assorted motorized parts for Scar’s mask might malfunction, leaving the actor to carry on with the mask in the wrong position.

Components of the giant giraffe or elephant puppets often break, too. “And in Syracuse, one of the front leg screws broke off of Cheetah, and that was in the first scene,” Reilly says. “We had about 20 minutes to fix it. It was a tense time.”


But Reilly and the rest of the crew take such blips in stride. This is, after all, a show with a song about a worry-free attitude known as “Hakuna Matata.”


“When something goes wrong, we just get our screwdrivers, tape and glue and get the puppet back onstage as quickly as we can,” Reilly says.

The smooth operation of “The Lion King,” year after year, continent by continent, contributes to its success.

“It is one of the most pristine shows,” Legler says. “That’s how it is with Disney. Just like their parks, they are meticulous in every detail of the show. Disney puts you in a happier place. And Baltimore is ready for a little Disney, don’t you think?”

In addition to all the well-oiled spectacle and catchy songs, “The Lion King” has something to say.

“It’s a story of good conquering evil,” Bennett says. “It’s about a father trying to teach his son, and it’s about the strength of a woman — the beauty of Julie Taymor’s vision is that she changes Rafiki from a male character [in the movie] to a female character who gets the young lion back on track. We need stories like that today. And it’s a good story for Baltimore.”