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How 'The Lion King' maintains its magic on the road


As the resident director for “Disney Presents: The Lion King,” Dodd Loomis is responsible for everything from reworking scenes to fit a specific venue’s stage to reshuffling the antelope that bound through the audience during the spectacular “Circle of Life” opening to assure everyone has a clear vantage point.

Now in his fourth year with the show, Loomis oversees what is internally known as the “Rafiki” tour, because, as the character notes in the show, “change is good,” and on this run, the crew is tweaking some technical, behind-the-scenes aspects of the show. (The first national tour was dubbed “Gazelle” because of the multiple show sets that leapfrogged each other around the country, while another that ran quickly down the East Coast was christened the “Cheetah.”)

The Atlanta return of “The Lion King” to the Fox Theatre — the show played the venue for an extended run in 2014 — will take place Jan. 10 through Jan. 28, and Loomis will be in the shadows as always, eight shows a week, 52 weeks a year.

Since opening on Broadway in 1997, the elaborate musical based on the 1994 animated Disney movie of the same name has grossed more than $1.4 billion, establishing it as the highest-grossing show on the Great White Way.

Because such care is taken to preserve the integrity of the show by having a full-time overseer such as Loomis, the numerous national tours have been nearly exact replicas of the Broadway production.

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As Loomis noted during a recent chat from the show’s stopover in frigid Buffalo, N.Y., “The magic is in the excruciating attention to detail — everyone who is there is committed to that. When everybody has that mindset, you end up creating something magical.”

Loomis gave us some insight about some other behind-the-scenes aspects of the show.

This is a massive production:

“We have 52 performers on stage, including 36 ensemble members with 14 different costumes for 14 different parts. Thousands and thousands of costume pieces. We travel with our own wardrobe team and then hire an additional 30 wardrobe members locally, but they have to be trained. We travel with 137 people. There are 220 puppets.”

With a lot going on backstage:

“For every one of those entrances, the ensemble is changing their makeup, and while they’re doing that, they’re singing the backup choral music. They’re in the dark, backstage with two people with Velcro changing their costumes and wiping off their makeup while they’re looking at a monitor to sing backup. It’s pitch black back there, and all of the scenery is hanging in the air above everyone’s heads, being lowered mechanically while they’re singing.”

And then there are the physical challenges:

“Changing weather is difficult for the singers. In Buffalo, it’s absolutely freezing, and the house is warm but backstage is connected to the loading dock and it’s freezing cold. And then you’re in New Mexico and it’s 100 degrees and dry. Weather can be a big deal. The show is very physically demanding. To wear all of those puppets … these dancers on the giraffe stilts with a 5-foot mask on their heads, it looks absolutely beautiful, but the truth is, it’s incredibly difficult. Doing that eight shows a week, you can get fatigued or injured, so we have to change over or cover (people who know multiple roles); my responsibility is to maintain the artistic integrity and still in 2018 we want to maintain the exact same effect. So if that’s the mandate and you have this complicated show, I’m always working with the covers.”

But there is still plenty of magic in this show:

“For me, I’ve watched the show well over a thousand times because that’s my job. And sometimes since my job is highly technical, I’m looking at every little detail. But sometimes I let my eyes wander through the crowd, and I just look for those faces, especially if I’m at the back of the house and see those heads turn to see those (animals) coming down the aisles (during the opening). I’ve been moved to tears.”

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THEATER PREVIEW

“Disney Presents: The Lion King"

Jan. 10-Jan. 28. Times vary. $30.50-$165.50. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, www.foxtheatre.org.


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About the Author

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers the Atlanta Music Scene and entertainment news for print and online.