Students at Blue Ridge Middle School occupy the top of the food chain this week as their production of “The Lion King Jr.” takes the stage for two wild weekends of song, dance and emotion.
“The Lion King Jr., just as with its Broadway counterpart, is a ‘spectacle’ show. It has big sets, lots of color and great music,” said Dolly Stevens, Blue Ridge’s director of theater.
Stevens oversees a cast of 49 students and a technical crew of 16 students, all of whom bring talent and passion to their role in pulling off the ambitions production. For her part, Stevens—a member of BRMS faculty since 2009—approaches this inspiring musical with more than 20 years of experience as a professional actor, director and educator.
“I’ve been building the drama community at BRMS for the past eight years, and continue to be humbled by the wealth of talent from both students and parents,” she added. “I am one very lucky and blessed director.”
Welcome to the Prideland
“The Lion King Jr.” is adapted from the original Broadway musical hit, “The Lion King,” which itself is based on the wildly popular 1994 Walt Disney animated feature. The story follows Simba, the newborn cub of King Mustafa, as he navigates the complicated lion hierarchy and learns about his future responsibilities.
The junior is altered in scope for younger actors, but that doesn’t mean it’s dumbed down, as Stevens emphasized. “The notion is that middle-school students are only capable of handling a certain level of emotional depth in theatrical material—in my 25 years working with young people in theater, I have not found this to be the case,” she says. “Despite this being a ‘junior’ version of the full musical, the writers did a good job maintaining the integrity of the story and its rich characters. Our student-actors have been working for three months on learning six different African languages, as well as West African dances, both of which have added a lot of depth to their performances.”
Education, Inspiration and Action
Pulling off a show of this magnitude and spectacle would be no small feat, but as soon as Stevens learned it had been released for wider production, she jumped at the chance to add it to her students’ curriculum. Not only would the young actors benefit from the theatrical and musical challenges posed by the show, they would also get a chance to immerse deeply in African culture and language.
February is Black History Month, and Stevens saw a logical tie with the musical. “’The Lion King Jr.’ celebrates the roots of African cultures and languages, from its global inspirations to its magnificent African-influenced score and design,” Stevens said. “Our student-actors have been working for three months on learning six different African languages, as well as West African dances, both of which have added a lot of depth to their performances.”
Several students enjoyed learning the various languages so much, they formed a Swahili Club to honor the culture.
Aiding in this educational quest is a small army of volunteer parents who donate their time and skills building sets, painting scenery, sourcing props and assisting with costume design, among other tasks. Notably, BRMS parent volunteers Bill Short and Gretchen Lamb have professional artist bonafides that are particularly desirable in producing “The Lion King Jr.”
Short, a trained sculptor, used to craft costume pieces and headdresses for Universal Studios, Busch Gardens and Sea World before taking his current position serving in the U.S. Army. These days, he’s applying that knowledge behind the scenes at BRMS. Short created dozens of intricate head pieces and costume elements to make the lions, hyenas, monkeys and all creatures of the savannah as remarkable as their Julie Taymor-inspired Broadway counterparts.
Lamb, meanwhile, is working on choreography, bringing her extensive dance experience to the table. Training under the legendary Alvin Ailey and Paula Morgan, Lamb received specialized instruction in West African dance styles. The exuberant movements bring a special dimension to “The Lion King Jr.,” making Lamb’s up-close-and-personal knowledge a real boon to the production.
Stevens says Short and Lamb’s involvement is part of a wider dedication she sees from BRMS parents, without whom an undertaking of this scale would not be possible. “We are extremely fortunate to have [the talents of both Short and Lamb] on our boards,” she said. “Parents are a vital support group for creating theater in middle schools. Because there is generally no budget to speak of, we depend on our cast parents to provide production support in every area it is needed—costumes, sets, props, publicity, tickets, hair/make-up and so on.”
Parents also tend to walk away with meaningful experiences, she added. “Becoming involved will create a memory for them that is just as strong as the ones their children will have. Working on the musical with their child allows for a shared, good memory, which is never a bad thing.”
Loudouners are invited to create a shared, good memory of seeing “The Lion King Jr.” at Blue Ridge Middle School—show times are 2:30 p.m. Feb. 27 and 28 and March 5 and 6, and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26 and 27 and March 4 and 5. Advance tickets are $8 per person and available online at brms.ticketleap.com/lk. Tickets purchased at the door are $10 per person.