Five years ago, Nia Holloway was a junior at Norcross High School when she made history by becoming the youngest woman to play adult Nala in “The Lion King,” the smash-hit musical adaptation of the 1994 Disney film.
Now 22, Holloway brings the performance back home to the Fox Theatre, where the musical will run Wednesday through Jan. 28.
Holloway started performing on stage at a young age. By 10, she was going to auditions, and before long, she performed at the Apollo Theater. When Holloway and her family heard about the casting call for Nala in the tour of “Lion King” back in 2013, Holloway, who was then 17, decided to go for it even though she was one year shy of the minimum age. She nabbed the role and has been performing across the country ever since.
In its 20th year, “The Lion King” endures as one of the most popular stage musicals around the world. Since its Broadway premiere on Nov. 13, 1997, 24 global productions have been seen by more than 90 million people. “The Lion King” won six 1998 Tony Awards, including best musical, best scenic design, best costume design and best choreography.
The touring production features two more Atlanta residents — Courtney Thomas and Jane King, ensemble cast members. Thomas began attending dancing classes at North Atlanta High School at the age of 16, and he studied dance with AREA (Atlanta’s Resource for Entertainment and Arts). King, who grew up in Stone Mountain, danced for the Metropolitan Opera and Lustig Dance Theatre.
After Holloway landed the role, she was determined to still get a diploma from her high school. For the first couple of years on tour, she spent four to five hours a day studying and working with a tutor. Holloway credits the support of her family for helping her take on a big role at such a young age, and helping her continue her studies. Her dad joined her on tour, and her mom stayed at home with her two younger sisters. (One is now a college student at Georgia State University, and the other sister is at Clark Atlanta University.)
She also credited Disney for helping make sure she could attend her high school graduation. Disney also gave Holloway time off from the show so she could go to her high school prom.
Holloway said her contract will keep her in the role of Nala for the next year, and after that, she hopes to continue performing in Broadway productions. In her spare time, she works on crafting her own music.
In the musical, Nala’s role is expanded. Nala takes care of the Pride Land, and she also helps bring Simba back to take on his responsibility as king, Holloway said.
Holloway describes her character as “a young, fierce princess warrior.”
“Shadowland” is Holloway’s favorite moment to perform. While Nala begins the song in a dark place, she ends the piece strong, “ready to take on the world.” The song showcases Holloway’s strong and beautiful voice.
Holloway first performed with the touring musical at the Fox back in 2014 when she was 18. She said she immediately connected with the role.
“Nala has to find her journey, she has to leave her family behind, and I related because I’m going out into the world trying to figure out who I am,” she said.
And now, with this tour and return to the Fox years later, Holloway — and Nala — have grown together.
“For people who saw Nala a few years ago, they are going to see a new Nala,” she said. “Directors made sure I continue to grow as a woman and a character.”
Ultimately, Holloway said she hopes people take away a powerful message from the show.
“I hope one message people get is that our lives is truly a circle of life and we all belong to be here, and we should treat all people that way — that we all belong to be here.”
Thrilled to be home in Atlanta for a few weeks, Holloway looks forward to spending time with family and friends, and to go to her favorite spots around town, including one of her favorite restaurants — Soul Vegetarian in Atlanta.
And that’s not all.
“I can’t wait to sleep in my own bed,” she said.
“Disney Presents: The Lion King”
Jan. 10-28. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Also, 1 p.m. Jan. 11. $39-$169. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, www.foxtheatre.org.