A pride unites for 'The Lion King Jr.'
Among the costume suggestions that came along with the scripts for "The Lion King Jr." was a tip about using a paper plate to make the face of a lion. Um. That's not quite the vision director Kate Horvath had for the Duluth Playhouse's Children's Theatre production of Disney's popular coming-of-animal-age musical.
She had a bigger idea — something that more closely matched the long-running Broadway show.
Now, almost four months after brainstorming began with a crew of volunteer DIYers, the children's theater is about to stage, costume-wise, its biggest production.
"We thought 'Shrek' was big," Horvath said during a recent pre-rehearsal costume tour, where more than a dozen hyena heads, each with its own distinct expression and tuft, rested in the theater seats.
"The Lion King Jr.," with a cast and crew of more than 50 kids — mostly high-school aged — opens at 7 p.m. March 16 at the Duluth Playhouse and plays at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through March 26.
It's the story of a cub-who-would-be-king. "The Lion King Jr." opens in Pridelands just after the birth of Simba, heir to his father King Mufasa's throne. Scar, Mufasa's brother, isn't a fan of this particular circle of life and intervenes. Mufasa is murdered while saving Simba from some hyenas, and the cub is encouraged by his uncle to feel great guilt, so Simba skips town.
But all is not well under Scar's new rule. When Simba's old friend Nala leaves Pridelands in search of help for her homeland, she encounters the now-lion who was on the lam. Then, of course, Simba saves the day.
Disney's award-winning musical, which was originally staged in Minneapolis in the mid-1990s, is the third-longest running Broadway show. A New York Times' review from 1997 noted that director Julie Taymor was a "maverick artist known for her bold multicultural experiments with puppetry and ritualized theater, has her own distinct vision, one that is miles away from standard Disney fare."
Same with Horvath, who wanted a very specific aesthetic for the regional premiere.
A few days before opening, a sun dangled from visible strings. The fringe showed purposefully on backdrops. The stairs were obviously stairs, and the painted floor was very obviously painted.
"This is my nut-brain idea of what I wanted to happen," said Horvath, education director at the theater. "All raw edges of fabric are visible. There is no pretext of real Africa. There are raw edges of panels, strings.
"I want you to see the theatrical aspect."
This carries over into the costumes. Horvath wanted the actors to be puppeteers charged with moving masks — while also dressed like their characters.
"You stop seeing it," Horvath said of the manipulation. "It's the inherent magic of 'The Lion King.' "
Costume-creation was helmed by Kristen Biles, a thrift store whiz dexterous in duct tape, Mod Podge, Sharpies and Hula Hoops. Her son Zeb Biles is playing a hyena, zebra and wildebeest in the show. She admitted to a lot of Pinterest activity since they started thinking about the show around Thanksgiving. Since then, approximately 50 parent volunteers — including a regular crew of five to 10 people — have brainstormed, sewn, painted and added other finishing touches to the parade of animal masks.
Earlier this week, Biles detailed a one-piece yellow suit hanging from a costume rack alongside other one-piece suits, corsets and more.
"This was my nemesis," she said, pulling out a pair of brown chaps.
In lieu of a paper plate, Simba is part-flowerpot, part-bike helmet, part-handcrafted mask with tufts of repurposed blonde wig fanning the face like sunbeams.
"It's amazing what you can come up with using simple tools from a hardware store," said Delana Johnsrud, a volunteer whose son, Logan Johnsrud, is young Simba.
A giraffe is built on stilts; Pumba, the warthog, is a series of rib-like pipes worn like a backpack. Its backside is movable. Put more plainly: "She twerks," Horvath said.
A character loped into the room, head searching and thin limbs jumping. Desmond Scott, 17, wore a black bodysuit and puppeteered a hyena mask — his face painted to match. A thin brown tail ran along his spine. The senior from Duluth East said he's spent a lot of time seeing what happens when he moves in certain ways.
"When we walk, the legs kick out," he said, showing how the hyena's legs are attached to his own — a mix of pipes and knee pads.
Ciera Dastoor, 17, is Nala. It took awhile, she said, to get used to moving with the bucket-bike helmet combo on her head.
Ben Glisczinski, 17, has it relatively easy, however. He plays Zazu — a blue-hued bird whose coat is held aloft with flat plastic wire. "It's a light costume," he said. "I have the ability to move around. Birds are light on their feet; So am I."
If you go
• What: The Duluth Playhouse Children's Theatre production of Disney's "The Lion King Jr."
• When: Opens 7 p.m. March 16; Plays 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through March 26
• Where: Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.
• Tickets: duluthplayhouse.org or (218) 733-7555