- ANTHROPOLOGICAL SPECTACLE: Gerald Ramsey stars as Mufasa in Disney's "The Lion King," at Robinson Center Performance Hall through May 6.
Two things are abundantly clear if you've already seen Julie Taymor's stage adaptation of Disney's "The Lion King." First, you know exactly why that ticketing confirmation was so insistent that you be in your seat before the downbeat of the opening number. With that pageant as precedent-setter, Taymor's show keeps much of the animated film's dialogue and music intact, and somehow manages to transcend both, and its revised focus on the "women" of Pride Rock makes for some moments of profound emotional scope — Mukelisiwe Goba's gender-swapped Rafiki, for one, who leads the a cappella "Nao Tse Tsa," an agonizing lament for the fallen Mufasa that plumbs emotional depths the film's original musical numbers never could. (Sorry, Sir Elton.) Secondly, you know there's got to be some sort of mastermind behind the curtains making sure the whole Japanese bunraku-inspired, pan-African spectacle goes off without a hitch. It's a delicate hybridization of dance and engineering, and mechanics are everything. That mastermind would be Matthew Shiner, production stage manager for the national tour of "The Lion King." We talked with Shiner about the show, which is being staged at Robinson Center Performance Hall through May 6.
Do you recall your very first impression of Disney?
I grew up in Southern California, so Disneyland was always the face of Disney for me, and there was always a sense of that magic and immersive quality of entertainment. I think the first Disney movie I really remember is "Mary Poppins," to be honest with you — and just being amazed at the time with how high-tech that was, with live action jumping into the animated part of it. ... It'd be an amazing shock if I could go back and tell 7-year-old Matthew that, one day, he would be a part of that in a very special way. I don't think he would have believed me.
How long have you been doing this show?
Two and a half years. July will be my third anniversary with this production.
Does it get old?
You know what? No. It's funny – my parents used to ask me that question. And that's one of the best parts about touring with the show. You get to a brand-new venue, and we hire, like, 30-something local crew in every city, so we start working with new people. It's a new building and a new layout, with new challenges. And then we get to a new city, so when we're not in the theater, we can go explore the city and find the best barbecue place, and find the best bagel place and a good local coffee shop. And that helps us keep the energy going. But also, the audience's reaction to the show is always sort of amazing and over the top, and it gives you energy to go backstage and do the same show. ... You've got people doing the show who have been doing it for 10, 15, or some original company members on Broadway who have been doing it for 20 years. There's something special about this show where it never quite feels old.
What's the worst mishap? I know there must be all sorts of little "insurances" and backup plans in place, but were there any last-minute saves?
There are times when things don't work, or don't work as planned. You know, a mike goes out, or a costume change goes awry backstage. A zebra leg falls off in the wings. But you know, the audience doesn't really ever notice any of that. We have a well-versed contingency plan, so anything that could happen has happened at some point in the 20 years of "Lion King" history. ... The worst thing that has ever happened to me on the show is that we had a weird power surge during intermission in Baltimore, which threatened to stop every moving piece on set. My crew — during intermission — jumped, opened the deck, rewired a couple of things, got it done. Although the intermission was a little longer than we'd have liked, we got the show goin'. So it's those things that are out of our control that scare us the most.
The imagery from Julie Taymor's design is so well known at this point. How do you still delight anyone, given that part of our delight is from that element of surprise?
Oh! That's interesting. Well, I think there's something magical about the live event, sitting in the room, where you see these people transformed into giraffes and birds and elephants, and sort of the simple purity of how we do it. There's not a lot of high-tech in the show. The show is simply people on stage telling a story, and the way that we chose to keep its humanity — in a story that is basically about lions — is magical. [There's] this concept of a dual effect that Julie talks about all the time: We never forget that they're animals. At the same time, we can never forget that they're humans. ... This magic is rough and simple and pure. It's not like a theme park where we hide somebody in a big fuzzy costume. ... We have this spectacle and this pageantry and this borrowing of storytelling methods from so many different cultures. It's sort of theatrical lightning.
Disney's "The Lion King" runs 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 6:30 p.m. Sun., 2 p.m. Sat. and 1 p.m. Sun. through May 6. at the Robinson Center Performance Hall. For tickets, see celebrityattractions.com.