Thoughts from The Lion King Intermission: Scenic Design, Child Actors, and Audience Interference

Thoughts from The Lion King Intermission: Scenic Design, Child Actors, and Audience Interference

Elizabeth Hall and Catherine Armbrust

On our second to last day, Cat and I decided to purchase tickets for The Lion King, since we both had been wanting to see a live production of it. At intermission, just as we were starting to discuss our thoughts, Cat thought to record our conversation for a critical dialogue, since we had very passionate opinions on the performance. Below is what followed.

Cat: Okay so you were just saying that you feel that this is very similar to how you saw Aladdin, because there’s cheesy jokes like the one about the IKEA curtain.

Liz: Yeah, they’re clearly aimed at parents. And kids, like the Angry Birds one.

Cat: And what else is similar? Oh, like when the curtain comes down.

Liz: Yeah, so because there’s so many huge scene changes throughout the show, since they’re trying to mimic the scenes that are in the movie, they constantly have to bring one of the curtains down so they can have a huge scene change in the background. And it’s just two characters talking to each other, with nothing else, in front of the curtain. In Aladdin, it was Jafar and his parrot, and in this it’s constantly Mufasa and Zazu, another parrot.

Cat: Right.

Liz: It’s very eerily similar (Cat laughs) because it’s this dude talking with a parrot. It’s just like a very similar format, and it makes the whole show feel very jolted because you’re not getting these fluid scene transitions. I guess to a kid it’s not obvious, but to me it’s like “Oh, they’re changing scenes”.

Cat: That’s all I think about when that mid curtain comes down, is that they’re about to change the scene.

Example of a in front of curtain scene, from a Sydney production. Photo by Simon Parris.

Example of a in front of curtain scene, from a Sydney production. Photo by Simon Parris.

 

Liz: Because nothing is happening for the most part in those talking scenes. Like maybe one point of plot is kinda brought up, but mainly it’s just more jokes for parents and kids. I guess it’s just a different kind of theatre. Like it’s made to be entertaining for the whole family.

Cat: Yeah, it’s just family friendly fun.

Liz: Yeah, and it’s not meant to be like, I don’t know, like you’re transformed into this world that you’re totally hooked into the whole time. But part of that is that I feel like we’re at what Dr. Essin was calling a “relaxed performance” even though we’re not. But it’s what’s expected at a show that is aimed at children like this.

Note: A relaxed performance is designed for people who may benefit from a more relaxed sensory environment. Audience members are allowed to make noise, leave the auditorium and re-enter as they please, and light and sound effects are often modified in shows to be more accessible to those with sensory sensitivities.

Cat: Yeah.

Liz: Because there’s just constantly people talking.

Cat: Oh my god and the clapping! The clapping that just happened?

Note: Act One has just finished with “Hakuna Matata”, in which audience members clapped along, horribly off-beat.

Liz: That was like…the worst thing that has ever happened (Cat laughs). Because it happened like immediately!

Cat: They kept trying to make it happen, and it just wasn’t happening the entire song. Like there was no point in the song long enough for there to be clapping on the beats.

Liz: Well, “Hakuna Matata” is not a big number song, it’s 3 voices singing with like some drums and I assume like a guitar or something in the background? It’s very chill. So to have an entire auditorium start clapping becomes deafening in comparison, and they’re not clapping on the beat!

Cat: And they tried to do it immediately! Also with that scene, I thought that was a weird place to put an intermission. Am I wrong?

Liz: It was. It’s also just not typical of an Act One finale. Because normally Act One finales are the biggest numbers and they usually call back to previous songs and allude to something else. I kind of thought they were just gonna end it with Scar taking over, and have it be like a dramatic ending.

Cat: I thought that too! Because I think that it’s better to have Act Two start with baby Simba, and then have the big reveal of adult Simba.

Liz: I think they wanted to reveal adult Simba, to show like you’re done with baby Simba. Maybe it was because of the child actors, maybe the children need to like…

Cat: Go home or something?

Liz: But they probably need to be there for curtain call so I don’t know.

Note: Neither of the child actors appeared during bows, supporting our explanation that they end with this scene so the child actors can go home.  

Cat: Okay, so I want to talk about the child actors. Because I think the girl is good, but she only has so many lines.

Liz: She’s good though, from what we’ve seen, she is good.

Cat: But baby Simba…

Liz: (after the girl sitting next to Liz leaves) I do want to talk about that, but oh my god that girl keeps looking at her phone!

Cat: Really?

Liz: She’s just like scrolling.

Cat: Really?

Liz: And she’s snacking. I’m like, you paid the same price we paid for these tickets, which means you paid like 75 dollars…

Cat: Is that the light that I keep seeing out of the corner of my eye?

Liz: Yeah it’s her. And I looked over and she’s texting someone throughout the show.

Cat: Seriously?

Liz: Like, you paid 75 dollars for this show and you’re gonna sit here on your phone? And then she’s talking to her friend too about I don’t know what. Like they just talk in the middle of scenes.

Cat: I have been hearing talking but I thought it was like up there somewhere.

Liz: There’s more coming from over there with the kids, like I hear the kids talking, but they talk to each other too. And it’s just so frustrating because it just like completely…

Cat: It takes you out.

Liz: And it’s like by chance too. Like if we were like two more rows down, I wouldn’t see that light from her phone. And we would be a little bit further away from the talking, and it would be a little bit better, you know?

Cat: Yeah. Well, another thing about these big family friendly shows I noticed is the clapping after every single number. Like, when we saw Fiddler on the Roof, that was not the case.

Note: After further reflection, I do remember there being clapping after most numbers during Fiddler as well, so perhaps it’s just a musical thing.

Liz: Well also the fact that they clapped when the puppets came out (in “Circle of Life”). They’re really cool, I like them a lot, but all we heard was clapping because we couldn’t see them coming down the aisle yet.

Cat: Yeah and everyone’s like leaning forward trying to see the puppets that we can’t see yet.

Liz: I was just very surprised they clapped at that. But “Circle of Life” was great.

Cat: Yaaaaaasss.

Liz: I got so many chills during “Circle of Life”. When the three of them were singing together?

Cat: See it started strong!

Liz: And then we got into baby Simba.

Cat: Oh my god, okay so let’s talk about baby Simba.

Liz: Baby Simba is just not a good actor. I’m sorry.

Cat: I felt nothing when Mufasa died. Nothing.

Liz: I felt something when he fell.

Cat: Oh yeah.

Liz: I loved that moment.

Cat: When he physically died.

Liz: But I loved how they did it, I thought it was really cool. And the lights. It looked realistic, like it didn’t look like he was being pulled up by whatever rig he was on, which obviously he was, it looked like he was freaking climbing. He was doing a good job showing that. I think Mufasa was great.

Cat: Oh yeah! Oh yeah. Yes.

Liz: And I feel so bad that he was trying to pull any sort of emotion out of the child.

Cat: Out of this child and this child is not giving him anything.

Liz: I just can’t believe that that is the best person they could find for this role. Like I need to believe that there are better child actors out there.

Cat: Well this has been running for a while. I mean it’s kinda like how Phantom of the Opera on Broadway doesn’t have good actors anymore because it’s just been running for so long.

Liz: And I also don’t understand why they had to cast them so young. You could easily cast–

Cat: Like a young teenager.

Liz: Yeah, you could cast a 14 year old boy, that looks young, that hasn’t gone through puberty yet, and he looks like he’s still 10, and he could act younger than he is.

Cat: Also they don’t say how young Simba is, like he could be a tween.

Liz: And it’s obvious that he’s just going through the motions. He has no sense of any emotion he needs to convey or any sense of his character.

Cat: Oh my god when he was leaning over Mufusa’s body, he was like “Oh no. Father.” And he was like “Help. Somebody help us”. And then Scar comes over and tells him “Okay leave forever” (Liz laughs) and he’s like “Okay, goodbye Father, pat you on the chest and then run away”. Like do you feel no remorse?

Liz: But man did I get excited when adult Simba came out. I needed him to come out.

Cat: Oh my god when adult Simba–his voice! His voice.

Liz: I was like: Here we go. It’s gonna get better! (laughs) I like Pumba a lot too.

Cat: Oo yeah.

Liz: Pumba is doing a great job of exuding Pumba. And I appreciate that.

Cat: I like the puppet.

Liz: I love Pumba’s puppet! I have no idea why they decided to make Timon child-sized. Because Timon is not that large (laughs).

Cat: Yeah!

Liz: Timon easily could have been a puppet–

Cat: Like a hand puppet, like the parrot.

Timon and Pumba puppets and puppeteers. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Timon and Pumba puppets and puppeteers. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Liz: Like the parrot! I don’t understand why. I think maybe they felt like kids couldn’t relate if he was small? Like he didn’t need to be the size of an actual meerkat that you could hold in your hand, but he could be the size of the Zazu puppet.

Cat: Well in the movie the sizing is kind of off, because he’s like half the size of Pumba. Pumba should’ve been bigger in the movie, but he’s a good size in the show so they should definitely downsize Timon, not make them the same size ratio as in the movie.

Liz: Yeah and he shouldn’t be taller than Pumba.

Cat: No.

Liz: Like in the movie, Timon is like on Pumba.

Cat: Yeah! He’s like half the size of Pumba.

Liz: He looks too humanoid too. I don’t understand the idea behind making his puppeteer all green?

Cat: I don’t either. Because he sticks out like a sore thumb against that orange backdrop.

Liz: Maybe it used to be green? I know that later they go into the jungle so maybe he fits in better later in the show?

Note: They did have jungle scenes in the second act, with Timon’s puppeteer laying in green jungle foliage that matched his costume. So it did make sense for those few moments.

Cat: Ohhh. But okay they have an entire intermission to do a costume change.

Liz: (laughs) I know! Or just put him in black!

Cat: Yup. So I have feelings.

Liz: It’s weird because there are moments where I’m like “Yes!” and then there are moments where I’m like “Oof”. But this is having more problems than Aladdin did, because Aladdin had the same cheesy jokes, the same long transitions between scenes, but all of the actors were adults. So they still were all good actors, and fabulous singers. And fabulous dancers, so like you still got great performances, even though it was a little choppy.

Cat: Yeah. They are doing a really nice job with the puppets. The giraffes I think are my favorite.

Liz: Yeah the puppets are great. But another thing, the dancing…is a little sub-par. I think that could be better. But I think you’re right, this has just been going on forever and they don’t have the best of the best anymore.

Cat: I will admit it that I was watching where the puffs of smoke were coming out more than I was watching the dancers.

Liz: Yeah that was fun, I mean the set is amazing. The amount of layers in this set is insane.

Cat: Oh my god the sun coming out of the ground was the most beautiful thing.

Liz: I loved the turning thing–

Cat: Yaaass! Pride Rock turning.

Circle of Life, showcasing the set for Pride Rock and the animal puppets. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Circle of Life, showcasing the set for Pride Rock and the animal puppets. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Liz: It’s like a turntable but it’s also Pride Rock. It’s so fun. And I loved the boneyard.

Cat: The elephant bones.

Liz: Yeah. That was cool, it looked exactly like the movie. So that was very impressive. It is weird because now that I think about it, the only song that we know, left, is “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”. I really thought they would save “Hakuna Matata” for the second act.

Cat: I thought they would save it, yeah. And I thought that was a weird place to put the intermission.

Liz: And I just couldn’t enjoy the song because everyone was clapping!

Cat: Yes because of the clapping! (Both laugh) Of all the songs that are new, I loved the song between Mufusa and Simba with the stars. I thought that was beautiful. Did you see the stars on the ceiling? They were a really nice touch.

Liz: Yeah I realized what you were pointing too after a bit. And I’m so ready for those stars to become Mufusa later.

Cat: I know!

Liz: Overall, it’s like the design of this show is amazing, and that design has stayed throughout from when it was first created, but the performances are a little…

Cat: Sub-par.

Liz: But I’m still enjoying it, because it’s just a cool sight to witness. And I hoping Act Two will be better now that the child actors will be gone.

Cat: It kinda reinforces Foster’s idea that all child actors are not good actors.

Note: This was after we had seen Small Island, which used child actors in the beginning scenes, and we had an after-show discussion about the use of child actors and their talents.

Liz: I really don’t think child actors should be used. If it’s a child, they should be teenagers that just act like kids. Because I don’t like adults acting like kids, like in Class, that’s annoying.

Note: Class had three adult actors, but two of them played double roles, being both parents and kids in different scenes.  

Cat: I mean think about Tom Holland, he’s 22 and he plays a 14 year old or something (as Spider-Man).

Liz: The kid that played Jack in the Into the Woods movie, he was 15 and he was playing the role of like a 9 year old or something like that. But he just looked young. Especially boys, I mean a lot of them don’t go through puberty until later so they can still look that young.

Cat: Yup!

Liz: And like, they’re on a stage. So it’s not like we’re super up close to them. As long as they’re short, it’s convincing. Like, in the Frozen musical at Disneyland California Adventure, they don’t use any child actors, they use 5 foot women as baby Anna and Elsa. And it’s fine! Like they sing well, they can act. They do the baby voice kind of and it’s a little annoying, but like, you know, from a distance they look like a little kid.

Cat: Yeah and baby Simba did not have any emotion exuding from his body whatsoever. And I get that this is probably his millionth performance and he’s tired and he’s doing it over and over again, but like, c’mon.

Liz: Yeah and Simba is the main character, and you can’t rely on your musical to succeed if you’re relying on a 10 year old. That’s just stupid, that’s just stupid planning. Like maybe when they first put out this musical they found like super, super talented kids, so maybe they could rely on those kids?

Cat: But there was no talent from this kid whatsoever.

Liz: Yeah.

Cat: So you’re of the opinion that child actors shouldn’t be used?

Liz: Unless it’s like a small part.

Cat: Yeah. Like Nala was great. And it was a small part.

Liz: And the way she sounded I believe she’s older than he is.

Cat: Really?

Liz: But looks younger. I wish we got to see her more. But yeah I mean if there’s a part in a play or musical where there’s just like a kid that has to act with an adult for like one or two scenes, then yeah have a kid play it. But for a show like this, it’s just a stupid idea to have child actors as leads for the entire first act.

Cat: Yeah.

Liz: Like to sit through an hour of a 10 year old struggling to remember all of his lines and blocking and choreography…

Cat: And not giving us any sort of emotion.

Liz: Because that’s all he’s focused on, like he doesn’t want anyone to be mad at him. Like he’s trying his best, I’m not like trying to rag on the kid too much, but unless you have a prodigy level kid, that’s just too big of a role for a kid to play over and over and over again. On West End or Broadway or whatever. And it detracts from all of the great, talented adults that are also on stage.

Cat: Yeah. I’m so excited for adult Simba. Well, stay tuned for adult Simba!

Intermission came to close, and thus our dialogue was cut off. We both found the second act to be better than the first, mainly because of the result of no longer having child actors leading the story. After some discussion with our classmates the next day, a few noted that performances they had seen of The Lion King had great child actors that really stole the show. So perhaps Cat and I were just dealt an unlucky hand.

As I spent the next day contemplating my opinions about the show, I realized I hadn’t seen the movie since I was probably a child. So, as I browsed through movies on my 10 hour long flight home, and saw The Lion King on there, I decided to watch it and see how it compared to the live version. I was pretty shocked that almost all of the dialogue, almost all of the scenes, settings, etc, were exactly the same. Cat and I had chalked up the unfunny jokes and bad dialogue to just a bad theatrical interpretation of the movie, but I guess we had a rose-colored view of a favorite childhood film. I do think the jokes landed a little better in the film, with talented voice actors like Nathan Lane as Timon and Rowan Atkinson as Zazu. But all of those boring scene transitions we talked about? Exact scenes out of the movie, except for one or two. I assumed they had made them up so they could accommodate the scenic transitions, but for the most part those actually existed in the original film. And there’s probably a reason I didn’t remember them as a kid. So I got to give The Lion King a little more credit for being true to its original story. However, after running for 20 years at the Lyceum Theatre, you would think they would freshen it up a bit. With better references than IKEA and Angry Birds.

 

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