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QUEEN OF THE PRIDE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When The Lion King officially opens tonight at the Hippodrome Theatre, in the audience - along with a delegation from the South African Embassy, local celebrities and socialites, subscribers, critics and musical theater fans - will be a lithe, extremely attentive woman jotting down notes.

Twenty or so of her relatives and friends also will be among the theatergoers. But for Rachel Tucker, this is a work night.

She might make a note about a dancer who isn't positioned properly, or could be better balanced on a turn, or needs more energy, or a different focus. Or she might write a few words of praise for someone who has executed a step particularly well. Whatever the specifics, Tucker says, "Trust me - my fingers are going."

Tucker is the touring production's resident dance supervisor - a job that doesn't exist on most shows. But as the Baltimore native points out, "This show is not the normal show. ... Our show incorporates everything from mask work to puppetry to stilt walking to aerial flying and, of course, all the basic dance moves. Garth Fagan, the choreographer, has created just about every style of dance in this piece possible: There's modern. There's ballet. There's African. There's hip-hop. Tap. You name it, it's there."

A 1986 graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts who grew up in West Baltimore, Tucker has been with The Lion King from the beginning. At the Hippodrome earlier this week, while trucks were being unloaded, scenery set up and costumes and props carted across the lobby, she discussed her history with the Tony Award-winning show.

It began in 1997, when she left the Radio City Rockettes to join The Lion King. Director Julie Taymor was crafting the Broadway musical from Disney's animated film about a lion coming of age and reclaiming the throne usurped by his evil uncle.

From the first rehearsal, Tucker says, "You could feel the genius in the room."

Tucker - who no longer appears in the show - was hired as a "swing," a performer who understudies several ensemble members. That meant playing, at various times, a lioness, cheetah, gazelle, zebra and hyena.

Elements of the show "changed a lot" during rehearsals in New York and in the pre-Broadway run in Minneapolis, Tucker says. "For example, we had tails as a part of our lioness costumes, [but] you could not roll if you had that." Out went the tails.

In a stampede scene, she continues, the scenery took longer to change than expected, so a dance scene was added in front of a drop.

Although Tucker was partial to being a lioness, she adds, "I loved the cheetah because it's such an amazing puppet." Gracefully extending her arms and pawing the air, she demonstrates, "The cheetah has strings connected to the top of the puppet, and it connects to your head. So when you move, it moves. So it comes to life with every step that you take."

In 2000, Tucker suffered a herniated disk in her neck, an injury she suspects had been building up over time. As part of her therapy, she did Pilates and found it so beneficial, she became certified as an instructor.

She returned to The Lion King in 2002, when this touring company (one of two in the United States) was being formed. Having served as dance captain on Broadway, she was now appointed resident dance supervisor, an off-stage position.

"The resident dance supervisor is on the outside looking in, just making sure that the choreography is as intended," she says, "from Scar [the villainous uncle] doing a tango to Timon [a meerkat] and Pumbaa [a warthog] doing a little Charleston." She also conducts rehearsals and trains new performers.

The youngest of eight children of the late Roosevelt and Tecora Tucker, Tucker comes from a family with no precedent for a career in dance. "She has all of the talent there," says sister Rhonda, an accounts receivable manager with the Johns Hopkins Health System.

Rachel was only 7 when her mother died. Shortly afterward, a family friend took her to a dance class at the Ava Fields Dance Ministry. "She took to it right away," Rhonda Tucker says. "She was fluttering around the house after that."

In class, dance instructor Fields had an immediate reaction. "That baby is going to be good - just let her stay with me," Fields remembers thinking. "I can always tell way back when."

After Tucker's mother's death, the family moved frequently. Times were hard, although Tucker rarely mentioned the hardships, Fields recalls. "She had to dance. I really believe that. She had to dance to escape. I think dancing saved her."

In 1982, Tucker auditioned for the Baltimore School for the Arts. With no classical training, she failed to make the cut. She spent her freshman year at Walbrook Senior High, then auditioned again after honing her technique. This time, says Norma Pera, head of the dance department at the School for the Arts, "she blew us away."

During her three years at the school, "She was like the perfect student in every way," Pera says. "There are times when you're looking at dancers and kind of holding your breath ... and there are times when you sit there totally relaxed because they're so sure of what they are doing, and Rachel was a dancer who was so sure, you could relax."

After high school, Tucker earned a bachelor's degree from Point Park University in Pittsburgh. She began dancing professionally after sophomore year, when she got a summer job at a theater in the Virgin Islands. Shortly after graduation, she was dancing in Monaco, as part of the opening act for such performers as Ray Charles, Tina Turner and Shirley Bassey. (Subsequent work has ranged from serving as a principal dancer with the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in Ohio to dancing on The Late Show with David Letterman and touring in The Wiz. )

The Lion King, however, has been her longest gig. She met her husband, singer Samuel McKelton, eight years ago in the Broadway production, and they're now on tour together.

During The Lion King's three-month Hippodrome engagement, Tucker and McKelton are staying with Tucker's sister Rhonda in Pikesville. It'll be the most time she's spent in Baltimore since high school. Cast members are already asking for her advice on what to see and do in her hometown.

"I'm so excited to share The Lion King with Baltimore," Tucker says, "and then at the same time, to share Baltimore with The Lion King."

The Lion King

Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 6:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 4

Tickets: $26.50-$76.50

Call: 410-547-SEAT

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