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Disney’s The Lion King Roars into Durham Again, for a Five-Week “Sit-Down” at DPAC, Starting Feb. 16th

<em>The Lion King</em> will "sit down" in Durham for five weeks, starting Feb. 16th (photo by Joan Marcus)

The Lion King will “sit down” in Durham for five weeks, starting Feb. 16th (photo by Joan Marcus)

The critically acclaimed Gazelle Tour of Disney Theatrical Productions’ multiple Tony Award®-winning presentation of The Lion King, ingeniously directed by Julie Taymor and choreographed with brio by Garth Fagan, who both won 1998 Tonys for their efforts, is returning to the Durham Performing Arts Center for a five-week “Sit-Down,” starting at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 16th, and continuing through 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 20th. DPAC is presenting this 1997 box-office bonanza, based on the 1994 animated film, as a “Season Add-On,” Thursday-Sunday, Feb. 16-21 and 23-28 and March 1-6, 8-13, and 15-20 in its 2,700-seat state-of-the-art theater, in the American Tobacco Historic District in downtown Durham.

The Lion King made its Broadway debut on Nov. 13, 1997 at the New Amsterdam Theatre, and moved to the Minskoff Theatre on June 13, 2006. It is still playing there, and has a combined total of nearly 7,600 performances, making it the third-longest-running Broadway show to date, according to Wikipedia.

“I started with the show probably a year and a half before it opened,” recalls David Benken, who serves as technical director for the original Broadway production, as well as the various national tours of the show, which commenced in 2002. He adds, “I knew some people who were involved with the show early on …. There was a lot of planning before we finished the design and went into the shops.”

The Lion King features toe-tapping tunes by Elton John, catchy ear-worm-like lyrics by Tim Rice, and a sunny coming-of-age story — that unfolds against a dark background of Hamlet-like brother-against-brother Machiavellian machinations and murder — written by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, based on the screenplay of the 1994 animated film, which Allers co-directed with Rob Minkoff and Mecchi co-wrote with Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. The Lion King won the 1995 Academy Award® for Best Music, Original Song for Elton John-Tim Rice chart-topper “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which rose to #14 on the UK Singles Chart and peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Nominated for a dozen 1998 Tony Awards, the show won six Tonys, including the awards for Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Choreography, Best Scenic Design (Richard Hudson), Best Costume Design (Julie Taymor), and Best Lighting Design (Donald Holder), plus the 1998 Theatre World Award for Best Musical.

Nia Holloway as Nala and The Lionesses perform "Shadowland" (photo by Joan Marcus)

Nia Holloway as Nala and The Lionesses perform “Shadowland” (photo by Joan Marcus)

David Benken, who made his Broadway debut as technical director of The Lion King, says his job is to make sure that what the designers want to do can be done physically and within budget. He works with the show’s set, lighting, sound, and properties designers to make the director’s vision of the show a reality.

“I work with all the physical elements of the show,” Benken explains. “I don’t deal with the actors, other than to make sure that they are safe on stage.”

Transforming a highly popular animated film into a stage musical presents a number of daunting challenges for the show’s creative team, says David Benken. First of all, all of the movie’s characters are animals. But he says that director and costume designer Julie Taymor came up with an ingenious solution: “The costumes incorporate both the actors and the animals that they are playing in the show,” he says.

Making lightning-fast cinematic transitions from the soaring heights of Pride Rock to the desolate lows of the Elephants’ Graveyard to the chaos of the stampede in the savannah presents another series of special challenges, says Benken. But nowhere is the screen-to-stage transition more difficult, says the Cincinnati, OH native and Colorado State University graduate, than in a key scene that involves a lot of fire. “Julie [Taymor] used shadow puppets to get away from the idea of flame, which is difficult to do [safely] on stage,” says Benken.

The North American tour of The Lion King, which previously set local box-office records in 2006 in Raleigh and in 2011 in Durham, stars Gerald Ramsey as the title character, Mufasa, the king of Africa’s Pridelands;Patrick R. Brown as his envious and ruthlessly ambitious evil brother Scar, who covets Mufasa’s throne and will do anything to wrest it from him; Ashley Ware Jenkins as Mufasa’s queen, Sarabi; Mukelisiwe Goba as the quirky philosophical baboon Rafiki; Drew Hirshfield as the pompous hornbill Zazu; Ben Lipitz as the big-hearted warthog Pumbaa; Nick Cordileone as the tough little meerkat Timon; Aaron Nelson as the grown-up version of Mufasa’s son and heir, Simba; and Nia Holloway as the adult version of Simba’s girlfriend Nala. BJ Covington and Julian Rivera-Summerville alternate as Young Simba; and Savanna Fleisher, and Imani Pullum alternate as Young Nala. The three treacherous hyenas are played by Keith Robert Bennett as Banzai, Tiffany Denise Hobbs as Shenzi, and Robbie Swift as Ed.

The Lion King also features additional lyrics by director and costume designer Julie Taymor, who also served as the musical’s puppet co-designer, and additional music and lyrics by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, and Hans Zimmer.

Besides Julie Taymor, choreographer Garth Fagan, scenic designer Richard Hudson, and lighting designer Donald Holder, the tour’s creative team also includes mask and puppet co-designer Michael Curry, hair and makeup designer Michael Ward, sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy, associate producer and orchestrator Robert Elhai, orchestrators David Metzger and Bruce Fowler, musical director Rick Snyder, musical supervisor Clement Ishmael, associate director John Stefaniuk, and associate choreographer Marey Griffith.

<em>The Lion King</em> ensemble performs the show's opening number, "The Circle of Life" (photo by Joan Marcus)

The ensemble performs the show’s opening number, “The Circle of Life” (photo by Joan Marcus)

Broadway and tour technical director David Benken says, “We are trying to give [the North American tour] the same look as the show that you saw on Broadway. That show took six weeks to load in, but we have to load it in in four days on the road. That’s a big technical challenge…. We have 17 trucks-worth of scenery” to transport from venue to venue, assemble, and disassemble.

“I generally go to theaters a year or two in advance,” says Benken. “Disney wants to present the same experience” on tour as on Broadway. He adds, “We would not play a theater if [the show] would not fit the theater as it is designed.”

The Lion King has some unique technical challenges. “There’s quite a lot of things that happen in the house,” Benken points out. “We have to get actors out to the lobby and up the aisles to the stage…. We have to make sure that the aisles are wide enough to accommodate the elephant.”

David Benken adds, “Durham has a quite new and very nice theater, so we haven’t had too many problems there…. We had to set up a position in the front of the house to act as a dressing room for the actors and to modify a handrail in the orchestra level. We also had to remove some seats in the back of the house to allow the elephant to make a turn….

The Lion King is a remarkable piece of theater,” says Benken, who supervises 11 technicians who travel with the show. He adds, “This show is different from any other show that you’ve seen…. Visually, it’s quite striking…. The music is expanded greatly from the movie….” All in all, Benken says, “It’s a very enjoyable evening in the theater.”

SECOND OPINION: Feb. 16th Raleigh, NC Raleigh video interview with head carpenter Billy Kimbley, conducted by Jeffrey Kare for BWW TV: and Feb. 8th video interview with actor Ben Lipitz, who plays Pumbaa, conducted by Jeffrey Kare for BWW TV:; Feb. 11th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan:–plus/article_44a2c0da-d115-11e5-ae29-c7f23e3510c6.html (Note: You must subscribe to read this article); Feb. 10th Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Byron Woods:; and Feb. 10th Burlington, NC Times-News preview by Logan A. White for “Teens & Twenties”:

The Durham Performing Arts Center presents Disney’s THE LION KING at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16-18, 8 p.m. Feb. 19, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 20, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23-25, 8 p.m. Feb. 26, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 27, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m. March 1-4, 8 p.m. March 5, 2 and 8 p.m. March 6, 1 and 6:30 p.m. March 7, 7:30 p.m. March 8-10, 8 p.m. March 11, 2 and 8 p.m. March 12, 1 and 6:30 p.m. March 13, 7:30 p.m. March 15-17, 8 p.m. March 18, 2 and 8 p.m. March 19, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. March 20 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.

TICKETS: $33-$109. Click here for DPAC Special Offers.


DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787),, or

Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587,, or

SHOW:< and

VIDEO PREVIEWS: and (360° Experience of “Circle of Life”).





EDUCATIONAL VIDEOS (The Lion King Experience):





NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24th, performance.


The Lion King (1994 animated musical film): (official web page), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

The Lion King (1997 Minneapolis, 1997 Broadway, and 1999 West End musical): (official website), (Internet Broadway Database), and (Facebook page), (Twitter page), (Wikipedia), and (YouTube).

Elton John (music): (official website), (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

Tim Rice (lyrics): (official website), (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

Roger Allers (book): (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

Irene Mecchi (book): (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

David Benken (technical director): (Internet Broadway Database).


Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)

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