Life as a lion isn't all basking in the sun and starring in Discovery Channel programs. There's also the complex dance moves and intricate staging -- all while keeping those giant masks in place. That's life for the big cats in The Lion King, the hit Broadway production that pulls into town Friday. "Everything I do I make physical, because of my background," says Kissy Simmons, a former college track-and-field star who plays the adult Nala -- the gal pal of Simba, the lion king. "I continue to work on this all the time."
Based on Disney's 1994 animated movie, Broadway's Lion King is a commercial and critical smash that has played to sold-out houses since its debut nearly six years ago. It snagged tons of awards -- including the Tony (for Best Musical), the Drama Desk, and even a Grammy (for its cast recording) -- and anticipation for the tour is unprecedented. "A lot of people look at the animated feature and say, 'I watch that with my son or my daughter all the time,'" Simmons says. "But this isn't just a kids' show."
The cuddly flick's kid-friendly formula of talking beasts, wisecracking traveling buddies, and circle-of-life moralizing paints a very broad picture of the wide-open spaces that Simba and his pals call home. The stage version -- also a Disney production -- is more abstract, with hundreds of masks and puppets telling the story of the lost cub who would be king.
"We've been doing this [tour] for more than a year now," Simmons says. "And it was a challenge to manipulate some of the puppets at first and make the masks come to life. It's second nature now. I'm being the character, instead of acting like the character."
The film's beloved score, by Elton John and Tim Rice, has been retained for the stage show, along with some new tunes penned by the duo. But the songs are decidedly more polyrhythmic onstage, basically becoming an integral part of the story -- almost as essential as the characters. "The African chants and the African lyrics in the animated feature really come to life on the stage," Simmons says. "There are singers who represent all the different animals onstage, and the Zulu dialogue is [amazing]."
But all the grownup staging, conceptual lighting, and interpretive performances don't strip away The Lion King's ultimate joy. "The first time I saw the show, when I was in the audience, I felt like a three-year-old," Simmons says. "I didn't know what to do. I was jumping up and down.
"You can't pick out just one thing from the show and say, You gotta see The Lion King for this. It starts from the top of the show and goes all the way to the end."