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Pride of lions: An interview with The Lion King's Andrea Jones
Pride of lions: An interview with The Lion King's Andrea Jones
by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

The Lion King
February 11 - March 15
Paramount Theatre
(ASL provided March 8, 1 PM)

"A spectacle" is the only way to describe the Disney smash musical, The Lion King. Based on the original 1994 animated movie, the stage performance - with music by Sir Elton John and lyrics by Tim (Evita) Rice - made its debut in 1997, showing Broadway just who truly is king of the pride. Through the brilliance of Julie Taymor's mind, the animal inhabitants of Pride Rock come alive in the opening number of the show, filling the auditorium with gasps and applause from the appreciative audiences. With the usage of elaborate costumes, stilts, poles, headdresses, cycles and the magic of theater, full-size elephants meander their way down the playhouse aisles; birds take flight and giraffes tower over the heads of the audience as they make their way to pay homage to the newborn lion cub.

The antagonist of the show is the King's brother, the lion Scar. With three hyenas serving as minions, he plots to overthrow the Kingdom and claim the throne for himself. The hyena roles provide comic relief in The Lion King, the first of several large produced Broadway Disney musicals. Through a phone interview, the SGN managed to speak with Andrea Jones, who plays the hyena Shenzi.

Eric Andrews-Katz: How long have you been with The Lion King?

Andrea Jones: I started with the show in 2005 in the ensemble as a singer during the Seattle premiere.

Andrews-Katz: How much does the average costume weigh?

Jones: If you include all the parts, the harness that holds the headpiece, the legs and everything, about 20 pounds. It looks a lot easier on stage than it is in reality, but it's fun.

Andrews-Katz: Was it difficult to get used to performing with the costumes? They look like they can be pretty elaborate.

Jones: It took some getting used to at first. As actors, we stand up straight and look each other in the eye when we perform. Since we are animals in this show we are working with four legs and using puppetry as well as our acting skills.

Andrews-Katz: Due to the strenuous performances and cumbersome costumes, is any extra physical conditioning required?

Jones: Every individual actor has his or her own physical routine. We, the hyenas, work out a lot and focus on our squats and abdominals because of the bent-over position our characters require. I try to keep my body in shape and be very disciplined in my physical fitness.

Andrews-Katz: Did you have any special training to mimic the animals portrayed?

Jones: When I started, the director gave me National Geographic videos of hyenas to watch. It was very helpful with forming my movements to mimic how they walk and interact. The cast worked closely with Michael Curry [who helped design the puppets with Julie Taymor] to help us get our movements down.

Andrews-Katz: Due to the larger scale of the production, what challenges does the traveling show have with the theaters in different cities?

Jones: It's really about spacing. The Lion King is a very big production. There are lots of actors, stagehands and equipment that we travel with. We always get to a new city early so we can have time to rehearse and accommodate accordingly. For example, in the elephant, there may be three or four people in the costume, but there are ways to compress in order to move down thinner theater aisles.

Andrews-Katz: What are some of the challenges of your particular hyena role?

Jones: I haven't run into too many challenges so far. At first it was difficult learning how to run on all fours, work a puppet, sing, dance and act at the same time, but once you get it down it all comes second nature.

Andrews-Katz: Do any particular characters of the touring show get played up for the sake of the audiences?

Jones: Not really. The hyenas provide comic relief in the first act. Pumbaa and Timon take over in the second act. They are some crazy characters.

Andrews-Katz: Does the spectacle of the show ever upstage the actors' performances?

Jones: The scenes, costumes and actors all compliment each other. There are a lot of things happening at the same time and it can be quite the visual extravaganza. But it all works together and that's what makes The Lion King what it is.

Andrews-Katz: Because of the physical demands the show presents, do you have any doctors/chiropractors or licensed massage therapists traveling with the show on staff? If you need a few local names, I'll be happy to give you some.

Jones: We have a physical therapist that travels with us to each city. We all not only use her, but we take advantage of a local list that is provided for other medical services.

Andrews-Katz: Since some of the roles can be physically demanding, how long does the average actor last in the show?

Jones: I think it differs depending on the role and the requirements each provides. At first, I stayed for two years and then I left. After a while, I came back. Several cast members come and go and as long as you leave in good standing, you are usually welcomed back. Others say they'll stay with the show as long as it continues to run. There are some people that were among the casts from 10 years ago.

Andrews-Katz: Providing wishes are granted, what roles in different shows would you like to play?

Jones: I'd love to play Deena Jones in Dreamgirls. That would be awesome. Maybe in five years or so I'll have enough experience to play her. Right now, I'm ready to play Lorrell. Eventually, I'd love to play Sarah from Ragtime and even Gary Coleman in Avenue Q. That would be fun.

Andrews-Katz: Well, here's hoping you get your chances. Thank you for taking the time for this interview and I wish you continual success.

Jones: Thank you. I've enjoyed it very much. The Lion King opened on Broadway in 1997, where it continues to run. Originally, the show opened to a full range of criticism, but earned 11 Tony Award nominations alongside such blockbuster shows as Bring in Da Noise Bring in Da Funk and Ragtime. Even before winning six Tony Awards, the Broadway extravaganza earned an 18-month-long waiting list for tickets within its first year. It is, to date, one of the few (if not only) long-running Broadway shows that has never been offered at the discounted TKTS booth in New York City.

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