Lions and tigers and buzzards, zebras, giraffes, gazelles, elephants, wildebeests, macaws, tree frogs, field mice and fireflies.
That’s a selection of the animals, birds and insects you’ll see in puppet and human form on the Durango Art Center stage this weekend.
“The Lion King Jr.” will open tonight and will run one matinee Saturday and one Sunday. Expect to see all 83 student performers on stage at least once, maybe twice. The rest is a miracle of inspiration and organization for the DAC Youth Theatre Company.
“I can’t turn a kid away,” said Director Emily Simpson Grandt. “If someone wants to be part of our company, they’re in.”
In and on stage means the DAC’s shallow, central performing area, a side stage and no fly space. If you step out the back door, you’re standing in the alley behind the center. To say a production of this size is a challenge is an understatement.
“The entire cast will be on stage for the opening number and the finale,” Simpson Grandt said with a smile. The rest of the musical consists of smaller ensembles and the central characters that tell a coming-of-age story of a lion cub in the wilds of Africa.
“It’s also the 25th anniversary of Creativity Festivity, so to celebrate, we wanted to go big,” Simpson Grandt said.
Creativity Festivity is an annual student art exhibition produced in cooperation with area art teachers. It’s one of the most colorful exhibits DAC mounts every year.
Staging “The Lion King Jr.” is ambitious, and Simpson Grandt said it could only be done with an enthusiastic cast and parent support. In addition, she has a creative dream team. Vocal coach Paula Millar, tech director Keith Alewine and set design, props-puppets and stage manager Jennifer Bayer are only three of a master list of adults who have shepherded the production through a seven-week schedule of rehearsals and set-building.
The “Lion King” phenomenon began with the 1994 Disney movie. It won numerous awards and became a worldwide hit. In 1997, the film sparked a colorful dance-and-puppet crazy Broadway musical. It, too, spawned truckloads of awards, a faithful audience and a junior version suitable for young-actor companies.
When Simpson Grandt thought about selecting “Lion King,” one key person turned maybe into yes.
“Jenn Bayer came to me with a vision for the puppets,” Simpson Grandt said. “It was ambitious and imaginative, and I said, ‘go for it.’”
With a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and a professional background in three-dimensional design, Bayer took the director’s cue and “went for it.” She’s created a multitude of stylized animal figures the actors carry or in some cases wear.
With her RISD training and career as an industrial product designer, Bayer said she also draws on her life-long passion for youth theater, student art exhibitions and a community arts center.
Add a cast of 83 to a creative adult leadership team in a community arts center and you have a 70-minute production of “The Lion King” as you’ve never seen it before.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.