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The ‘Lion’ gives a Fresno pre-party, and he doesn’t skimp on the invitations

Several years ago, producers of the national tour of “Wicked” held a press event at the Saroyan Theatre. It was a few months before the popular musical opened in Fresno for the first time. I was among a few dozen invited members of the media. We sat in chairs arranged right up there on the stage itself. (No need for that tiny number to sit in the cavernous auditorium.) One of the stars of the show from the current tour was on hand to sing a couple of songs, including the show-stopping “Defying Gravity.” A rep for Broadway in Fresno talked about when single tickets would go on sale. There was time for a few questions, press conference-style.

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Jack Eldon, a Disney Theatricals vice president, instructs us on the aerodynamics of Julie Taymor’s gazelles. Photos / Caty Massey Perez

So you’ll understand why I was expecting pretty much the same thing on Monday evening for the introduction of “The Lion King” to the Fresno market. (It opens Nov. 28 and runs through Dec. 9.) I’d glanced at the email invite and sent in my RSVP. I figured I’d breeze in, grab a seat, ask a few questions, listen to a couple of songs, and be on my way.

The first hint that this time would be different came when I passed by the convention center parking lot. After many years of attending events at the Saroyan, I’ve gotten pretty good at gauging the size of the audience by how crowded the parking is. Hmmm, I thought. There must be some other event tonight at the convention center as well.

I was cutting it close in terms of start time, so I grabbed a parking spot on the street, then made my way to the Saroyan’s front entrance. Hmmm, I thought. A metal detector at a press conference? After checking in at the RSVP tale, I noted my name on a list that had probably 20 times more people on it than work for all the media in Fresno. “It’s starting in a few minutes,” the check-in woman told me. “You can grab something to eat in the lobby.”

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I headed that way. That’s when I knew this “Lion King” event wasn’t what I expected. Thinking back, the fleet of Pardini’s catering trucks outside should have been a clue. The lobby area was nearly empty, but with that “you just missed the party” vibe. It was as if a marauding (and starving) army had swarmed through. Trays upon trays of appetizers had been picked clean, then left scattered, with only the dregs of the stuffed mushrooms indicating that food had once been there.

I hurried on to the auditorium, totally intrigued. I walked in.

There were at least 1,000 people inside. Stunned, I’m sure my mouth dropped open.

As I scrambled for a seat near the back of the orchestra section, I wondered: Who are all these people?

It turns out that all of us were there for a giant “Lion King” pep rally.

I’d never seen anything like it.

Disney Theatricals and Broadway in Fresno got all gung-ho on this one. Three principal singers from the national tour were there — flown in, presumably, from Dallas, where the show is now playing — to belt out some songs. A local 18-piece choir backed them up. There were visual aids (several costumes lovingly displayed on the Saroyan stage) and lots of video.

It was all rather surprisingly cerebral.

In fact, the session was rather like a theater class on “The Lion King.” We heard from director Julie Taymor in a video clip, including a rundown on her costume philosophy. (The masks that the characters wear in “The Lion King” don’t hide the faces of the actors; Taymor knew that the audience could process the visual experience in a way that made the animals seem complete.) At the Saroyan, we murmured appreciatively at her designs for the leaping gazelles, the teetering giraffes, the loping cheetahs. We learned about the five African languages used in “The Lion King,” the collaboration of the musicians involved, the pedigree of the choreographer and lighting designer.

When Taymor’s name was first introduced, some people in the audience actually murmured. I knew I wasn’t at a Bulldog game anymore, Dorothy.

We also heard from Jack Eldon, a Disney vice president, who gave us a lot of background and context about the show. (It’s made $8 billion. Wow.) By the end of the hour-plus program, I felt that even the Broadway stalwarts in the audience were getting restless — give us more crazy animal contortions! — but, for the most part, everyone was very well behaved.

It was all interesting stuff, but the real takeaway for me was the scale of the event. Disney and Broadway in Fresno are serious about this coming two-week run. They want to fill every seat, including with group sales. (Single tickets, by the way, go on sale Aug. 17.) The message: If “Wicked” was big, then “Lion King” is going to be that much bigger.

Afterward, as people streamed out of the theater toward the very fine dessert buffet (cake pops, anyone?), I asked a few of them how they got invited. One couple had bought a car at Lexus. (The Fresno car dealer has sponsored Broadway in Fresno for years.) Another guest was a Broadway in Fresno season-ticket holder. I saw members of the Junior Company from Roger Rocka’s at a distance, marked by their characteristic white T-shirts.

Caty Massey Perez, one of this blog’s loyal readers, wasn’t sure how people got the nod, either:

I’m still trying to figure it out! I am a new season ticket holder but also bought a car from Fresno Lexus. My dad is not a season ticket holder but bought a car through Fresno Lexus and was also invited. A mystery!

On my way out, two women walking to their car were also mystified.  And they hadn’t even bought a Lexus recently. They weren’t subscribers, and hadn’t been to the Saroyan in years. “I just got an email,” one said. “At first I thought it was spam. But I’m glad I went. I’ll be going to the show!”


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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (3)

  • Mary Dougherty

    I got invited presumably because I had gathered a group of folks together and applied for Group Tickets when Wicked came.

    reply
  • Diana Portugal

    I am signed up for Broadway in Fresno. I buy tickets for single productions too. I received my invitation by email. It was a first rate event and enjoyed learning about the conception of the costumes and songs of the musical. I am grateful for this opportunity to hear the history of Lion King.

    reply
  • Wayne Cole

    they did the same kind of promotion for Wicked a few years ago! It was excellent!

    reply

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