Better late than never, a grown-up ‘Lion King’ is set to roar in Fresno
It took so long for “The Lion King” to reach Fresno after opening in New York in 1997 that Simba can now legally order a beer.
But no grousing. Hakuna matata, right? The important thing is that this ever-popular show — which recently celebrated its 21st birthday on Broadway — is finally going to play at the Saroyan Theatre. The production opens Wednesday, Nov. 28.
Pictured above: The national tour of ‘The Lion King’ will play in Fresno for 16 performances. Photo / Ruth Marcus
By the time the show finishes its run on Sunday, Dec. 9, Fresno will now be able to say it’s hosted the Big Broadway Three — “Wicked,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Lion King.” All of them are huge, complicated productions that require markets that can support multi-week runs and theaters that have the latest technology. (As for “Hamilton,” which I’m guessing is still years away from making a stop at the Saroyan, let’s hope it will take far less time than two decades to reach our fair city.)
The current leg of the national tour of “Lion King” is part of an outreach on the part of the show to medium sized cities that haven’t played host before, says Matthew Shiner, production stage manager.
About half of the cities recently are “Lion King” first-timers — places like Boise and Peoria — and half are repeats.
“I think the first time we’re in a city, we feel that extra sense of excitement,” he says.
A couple of factors were involved in helping Fresno nab the “Lion.” One is that technical improvements to the Saroyan in recent years — first done to accommodate “Wicked” — meant that the theater could handle the biggest shows. And the second was that the touring version of “The Lion King” was completely rebuilt a few years ago. A few bits of choreography were updated for a fresher feel. The set was rebuilt. Costumes were redone. Lighting and sound technologies were upgraded to reflect improvements in the biz.
“It allows us to move quicker and load in quicker,” says Shiner, who emphasizes that the show’s visual impact wasn’t diminished in any way by the reboot.
That means a show that might have been too cumbersome to come into a city for just two weeks was transformed into one that could go into a lot more markets.
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For Spencer Plachy, who recently took on the role of Scar in the national tour, the result is nothing less than astonishing.
“The costumes and puppet work are otherworldly,” he says. “There’s been nothing else that’s been produced live on stage like this. The sensory overload from the very first note of the show sticks with you and is worth the price of admission alone.”
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I caught up with Plachy by phone from Las Vegas, the tour’s stop before Fresno. For this Broadway and regional theater veteran, the chance to join “The Lion King” a little over two months ago has meant a touring experience unlike any other for him. He previously toured with “Oklahoma” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“The last time I toured was in 2006,” he says. “Those were the days before I joined Actors Equity (the professional stage actors union). They were bus and truck tours. The shows were pared down to where they could do lots of one-nighters.” (These are often the the kinds of productions that make two-night stops in Fresno.)
“For me, as far as touring goes, sitting down in a city for two weeks is an amazing luxury.”
Plachy didn’t have any “Lion King” experience before signing on to play the villain. In fact, he’d never seen the production — although he loved the animated 1994 movie on which it’s based. The show had eluded him in person even though he had seen video clips.
After the audition process, he asked for a ticket to see the New York production. The producers said sure. The only problem was his available date was sold out.
“The only place I could sit was with the guys in the sound booth,” he says.
Which demonstrates the drawing power of the show 21 years after opening. The show’s 25 global productions have been seen by more than 95 million people.
As for playing Scar, he knew when he signed on that he’d find himself ensconced in an elaborate costume, but he didn’t quite realize what he was getting into.
It takes five people backstage and more than an hour to get into the 38-pound costume, which includes an elaborate mask. So far he’s been carrying the extra weight well, but he does admit to a few “nicks and bruises” as he’s learned the physical demands of the role.
Another thing that might take some getting used to is playing someone as mean as Scar. Plachy doesn’t have a lot of bad guys on his resume. (His Broadway roles include “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “Romeo and Juliet.”) To his surprise, however, lots of fans tell him that Scar is their favorite character.
When it comes time for the curtain call, he’s reveling in his newfound badness.
“If I hear a few boos during the bows, then I must have done something right,” he says.
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As you’d expect for a show that has been touring for so many years, the logistics are familiar and precise in each city. On Sunday night, even before the last performance finished in Las Vegas, some members of the crew were on their way to Fresno to begin load-in. (There are duplicates of some of the show’s infrastructure to make load-in easier.) On Monday morning, production manager Shiner arrived at the Saroyan to supervise.
The tour’s 20 trucks arrived today (Tuesday), and an 18-hour day began. The production’s floor, lights, scenery and all other aspects are set to exacting standards. Rooms for hair, makeup, costumes and physical therapy are precisely arranged. The show uses 16 extra dressers hired locally and 40 local crew members.
On Wednesday, there’s an orchestra sound-check, and the cast arrives in time for a full run-through dress rehearsal in the afternoon. “The Lion King” is so complex it needs that “shakedown cruise” in every city just to make sure everything runs smoothly, Shiner says.
After a brief dinner break, it’s time for the opening performance.
And because Fresno is a new city for the tour to visit, there will be some exploring to do in the off-hours. Top of the list for Shiner: Is there a decent bagel in town? What’s the best Chinese restaurant? Where’s a good late-night place to eat after the show?
One thing is for sure: There will be an air of excitement on Wednesday when the house lights dim and the show begins.
For Plachy, it’s like magic.
“Do not miss it,” he says. “I mean that with all sincerity. You’ve heard about it for years. Get a seat. You’re going to understand when that curtain goes up.”