BUCKHANNON — Pride rock and the grasslands of the African savannah are the backdrop of Buckhannon-Upshur High School’s spring production opening Thursday at the Virginia Thomas Law Performing Arts Center.
“Disney’s The Lion King Experience Jr.” weaves some of the beloved songs from both the movie and the Broadway stage version into a one-hour adaption that is family-friendly.
Director Laura Meese is pleased with how hard the students are working with a short turn-around time from their Thespian competitions.
“We’ve been working on it since late March,” she said. “We wanted to get an earlier start than that but we had Thespian competitions. We have actually only been doing it for about 4 ½ weeks which is a very short rehearsal time for a high school show but they are doing very good. They have come far fairly quickly.”
At Monday’s dress rehearsal, students were running through the show start to finish, fine-tuning their parts, musical numbers and, for one actor — how to move around the stage with a giant giraffe head.
Meese said, “The Lion King Experience Jr. incorporates songs and lines from the movie that Broadway doesn’t incorporate, but it also incorporates some of the Broadway music that the movie didn’t have.”
For example, “They Live in You as He Lives in You” was originally supposed to be in the movie but the time did not allow for it, so it was added to the Broadway show and is also in the Jr. adaptation B-UHS is doing.
Another song, exclusively in the Broadway version, “Shadowland” as well as two Swahili songs “Grasslands Chant” and “Lionesses Hunt” are also in the Jr. adaptation.
But movie fans will recognize “The Circle of Life,” “Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Matata.”
Music director Jeremiah Smallridge worked with the students on the music and said the students learned the Swahili by breaking it down phonetically.
A B-UHS exchange student, not in the play but who speaks some Swahili, also helped some of the students with pronunciation.
Meese said the students are doing well with the music.
“A lot of our students are very gifted musicians that have been singing in other languages for a while now,” she said. “They learned to sing in Latin and Italian and I think they had to sing a Swahili song before.
“While you have to break it down and go over it little bit by little bit I don’t think they had nearly as hard a time with it as I would have had.”
Jenna Kennedy, a freshman, is playing adult Nala.
“She’s very strong,” Kennedy said. “She’s stronger and the best fighter in the play.”
Kennedy said she was excited to be in her first big high school production.
“I’ve been acting since I was 8 years old and I love it,” she said. “This is my biggest role.”
Paula Seyffart is a junior exchange student from Germany.
At first, Seyffart said she wasn’t sure about being cast as the Rafiki but learned that the role is played by a female on Broadway and has since fallen in love with the character and the energy she brings to the stage.
“I’m able to be crazy and jump around the stage and it fits to the role and I love it,” she said.
Senior Charlie Presar is portraying Mufasa and said the audience will identify with the character.
“He is still the same regal and benevolent king but also a caring a loving father,” he said.
“This is my last theater production for Buckhannon-Upshur High School,” he said. [The Lion King] is one I watched a lot when I was growing up, so getting to be in it and be a major character my senior year is awesome.”
Presar said one of the major differences between the stage version and the movie is the characters are dressed more in traditional African tribal clothing and makeup.
The costuming has been done through the creative efforts of Carol Meese with some borrowing and building of certain pieces.
Doddridge County previously did a production of “Disney’s The Lion King Experience Jr.” and some of those costumes were borrowed. Others have been made and built.
The costumes include large animal heads that represent the African animals on stage including a giraffe and elephants.
Meese said the story is a good family-friendly production that will appeal to fans of the movie or stage version.
“What isn’t in the movie is still very enjoyable and lovely,” she said. “They should come see this show specifically because ‘The Lion King’ is a phenomenal story based on a classic Shakespearean tale. It’s well-written and the music is some of the most beautiful that has ever been in any Disney movie or on Broadway.
“They should come to Buckhannon-Upshur High School’s production of it to support their local community. Our students always learn through these productions and have a strong-hand in the creative decision making.”
Meese added the students have worked very hard over the last few months. Kelci Friend has led the choreography.
Performances run Thursday, May 4 through Saturday May 6 at 7 p.m. in the Virginia Thomas Law Center for the Performing Arts. A 2 p.m. matinee showing is scheduled for Sunday, May 7. There will be a 10-minute intermission.
Tickets are $10 while students and seniors can get in for $8. Upshur County Schools’ students will receive free admission with their event pass.