Yes, Disney’s Lion King is still roaring

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ABOVE: Gerald Ramsey is Mufasa in the North American touring company of The Lion King. Photo by Matthew Murphy ©Disney BELOW: The Lionesses dance. Photo by Deen van Mee ©Disney

This year for the holidays, BroadwaySF is giving us the equivalent of hot cocoa and nachos – comfort theater in the form of Disney’s The Lion King (now at the Orpheum Theatre) and Mamma Mia! beginning next week at the Golden Gate Theatre. The former has been around for 26 years and the latter for 24. While not exactly fresh, they’re reliable, enjoyable and, more to the point, beloved.

I last saw The Lion King about seven years ago at the Orpheum (read my review here), and the current tour feels sturdier in terms of performances and the overall production. It’s still a spectacularly beautiful show, and Disney has obviously invested in maintaining it at a high level. Other touring perennials (looking at you Les Misérables) seem to shrink in every way, making shortcuts (like too much video) and “reimagining” when they mean “reducing the budget.” But The Lion King is still mighty.

The weak tea Shakespearean book is never going to be one of my favorite musical comedy plots (it was fine for the animated feature, but the songs and spectacle could use more), but this King is all about director Julie Taymor’s ultra-theatrical production – a combination South African cultural festival, modern dance program (thank you, choreographer Garth Fagan) and phantasmagorical explosion of world puppet and mask traditions.

Taymor has blended her outsize theatrical vision with the more mundane aspects of the movie (comic relief, winky modern references, cardboard cutout bad guys) so that the 2 1/2-hour show moves expertly along, but it definitely feels like Taymor was way more invested in conveying the essence and beauty of African nature and wildlife than in the mechanics of storytelling.

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There are two knockout numbers in Act 1, the processional, magisterial “Circle of Life” and the exuberant, dazzling “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” alongside the still-dazzling effect of a wildebeest stampede. Which leaves Act 2 rather barren of high points. The act opener, a straightforward human musical number called “One by One” is charming, and then we get the nearly great “He Lives in You (Reprise)” to close the show. Before the curtain calls, we get a reprise of “Circle of Life” and more amazing animals, but nothing really new other than plot resolution, and that comes way too easily and predictably (kind of like in a Marvel movie).

But here’s what’s so great about The Lion Knig – it’s easy to love for anyone of any age. For many kids, this is their first taste of live theater, and it’s sophisticated in its theatricality while still being easy to digest. There’s a darkness to it (stemming from a lot of death in the story) that sits easily alongside the brighter moments, and the inherent message about maintaining the balance of nature, is no small accomplishment.

In this touring company, special shout out to Julian Villela as Young Simba (sharing the role with Mason Lawason), a star in the making. Charming, assured and affecting, Villela commands the stage like an absolute pro. Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa also makes a strong impression, especially vocally on “They Live in You.” I tend to resist the cornball schtick of Timon and Pumbaa, but Nick Cordileone and John E. Brady respectively are pitch perfect.

On Broadway and around the world, The Lion King musical has reportedly raked in over $8 billion. That’s astonishing. But given the rapturous response of Wednesday’s opening-night audience, it’s not all that surprising. It’s well made, beautifully produced entertainment. It raised the bar for Disney’s theatrical pursuits, a bar the mighty Mouse still hasn’t surpassed.

Disney’s The Lion King continues through Dec. 30 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $66.50-$300.50 (subject to change). Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes (including one intermission). Call or visit

On thin ice with Disney’s stage Frozen

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ABOVE: Caroline Bowman (left) is Elsa and Lauren Nicole Chapman is Anna with the company of the North American tour of Disney’s Frozen at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. BELOW: Collin Baja is Sven the reindeer and Jeremy Davis is Olaf the snowman. Photos by Matthew Murphy. © Disney

Frozen on stage is a disappointment. Here you have the No. 1 animated film of all time (according to Disney) with one of the most beloved and omnipresent songs from a movie (animated or otherwise) in decades, and it comes from a multimedia entertainment company that has a history of translating its properties to the Broadway musical stage.

When Disney adapts one of its own, the results can vary wildly, with the better results at one end (The Lion King, Aladdin, Peter and the Starcatcher, which is play with music) and the disasters at the other (Tarzan, The Little Mermaid), and a bunch of pleasant enough work filling the middle (Mary Poppins, Newsies, Aida). On that scale Frozen is not a disaster, but it’s barely entertaining and feels like a missed opportunity.

Director Michael Grandage’s production feels like it wants very much to be a Disney Wicked, with two strong women at the center of a story and the requisite bad guys and love story relegated to the periphery. But this show, which features sisters instead of frenemies, doesn’t do world building nearly as efficiently or effectively as Wicked, and the score, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez has a few high points from the movie (“Let It Go,” of course, “Love Is an Open Door” and “In Summer”) and a whole lot of filler.

The set and costume design by Christopher Oram copies the movie slavishly, and the translation from animation to three dimensions lacks imagination in the way the story does. It’s all so literal and without charm. When Elsa finally unleashes her powers in “Let It Go” and builds an ice palace, there’s a spiffy instant costume change, but the palace itself is something akin to a Swarovski-sponsored Christmas display at Nordstrom. The rest feels very theme park fake with heavy reliance on projections (by Finn Ross trying hard to turn live action back into animation) and icy lighting (by Natasha Katz).

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Performances are fine, but there’s not a lot demanded of the actors in terms of complication or subtlety. Voices all have that singing competition belt, and leads Caroline Bowman as Elsa and Lauren Nicole Chapman as Anna do their best to forge a sisterly bond and bridge the tonal gap in Jennifer Lee’s lazy book that shifts quickly from dramatic and dull to contemporary cartoon goofy.

What charm there is in this plodding production comes from Jeremy Davis as the fully visible puppeteer behind Olaf, the magically conjured snowman who likes warm hugs. Designed by Michael Curry (who provided similar services for The Lion King), the puppet has more personality that almost anyone on stage except Sven the reindeer, rendered as a fully costumed character and performed beautifully by Collin Baja and Dan Plehal alternating in the physically demanding role.

Of the humans, the brightest spark on the iceberg comes from Dominic Dorset as Kristoff, whose best song is still the sweetly silly “Reindeer(s) are Better Than People” from the movie, though he does his best with the heavy handed ballad “What Do You Know About Love?”

Even though the creative team has apparently tried to deepen the original story and correct the fact that the movie simply stops being a musical about halfway through, the results are so middling, there can’t be another reason for the show’s existence other than a money grab. There’s not a lot here for adults or musical theater enthusiasts, and for the target audience of kids, there will be moments of delight separated by too many turgid stretches.

There’s only one bit of appropriate advice here, and you probably know what that is. If you’re going to Frozen with an expectation of high-level Disney entertainment, do the opposite of hang on to it.

Disney’s Frozen continues through Dec. 30 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $50.50-$294.50 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Disney’s Aladdin flies high at the Orpheum

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Adam Jacobs (Aladdin) and Anthony Murphy (Genie) (center) in Disney’s Aladdin North American Tour company at the Orpehum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Jacobs and Isabelle McCalla as Jasmine prepare for a magic carpet ride. ©Disney.

There is no question in my mind, that of all Disney’s animated film to Broadway adaptations, Aladdin is the most thoroughly successful. For The Lion King stage adaptation, Julie Taymor offered eye-popping spectacle and stagecraft in service to a flimsy story and even flimsier characters. Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s first Broadway venture, was fun and dazzling but only a ride vehicle away from being a theme park attraction. The less said about the misguided Tarzan and missed opportunities of The Little Mermaid the better.

Aladdin is pure, old-fashioned musical comedy, and it works at all levels. On Broadway, the show was a delightful surprise, and happily, everything that made it so much fun is present and accounted for in the lavish national touring production now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season.

I reviewed the show for Here’s a sampling.

There’s a reason Aladdin is Disney’s best animation-to-stage effort, and that reason is Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw. His work on shows like The Book of Mormon and Spamalot have honed his ability to bring just the right balance of comedy, razzmatazz, and heart to Aladdin’s bag of tricks.

Nicholaw’s success with Aladdin, now in its fourth year on Broadway and with the national tour, which launched earlier this year, has everything to do with his light, energetic touch and his ability to find humor that can appeal to children and adults.

Read the full review here.

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Disney’s Aladdin continues through Jan. 7 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$213 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Even The Lion King seems political now

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Buyi Zama is Rafiki in the North American tour of Disney’s The Lion King, at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre. Below: Nia Holloway is Nala” with the Lionesses. Photos by Joan Marcus. ©Disney

The “mane” question is this: after nearly 20 years, does Disney’s The Lion King, now the highest grossing Broadway show of all time, still have any roar left? Based on the touring production that has settled into SHN’s Orpheum Theatre for a two-month run through the holidays, the answer is a qualified yes.

From the outset, when the 1994 animated hit leaped to the stage in 1997, the strength of the production has rested solely on director Julie Taymor’s vision for adapting cartoon to live theater. Rather than rely solely on blockbuster special effects, Taymor and her creative team leaned in the direction of traditional and inventive puppetry, gorgeous (sometimes surprising) costumes and masks that rarely cover a performer’s face. The result is something that feels highly theatrical and imaginative but also remains true to the movie, which is a simplified spin on Hamlet set in the African savannah. The score, primarily by Elton John (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), has a sweet poppy appeal (“Hakuna Matata”, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” the majestic “The Circle of Life”). But the real heft of the show’s music comes from Lebo M, a South African composer whose contributions, including the rousing Act 2 opener “One by One” and the show’s best number, “He Lives in You (Reprise),” lend an authenticity and uncommon beauty to the Broadway trimmings.

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Having made over a billion dollars worldwide, The Lion King is a massive industry built on solid, crowd-pleasing craftsmanship. The show, at 2 1/2 hours, is a little slow, and pacing in this tour can be patchy. At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, there was some unfortunately persistent audio feedback in Act 1 that was followed, about 30 minutes in, by a five-minute break while technical issues were addressed. Not what you expect from a show where top ticket price is over $200, but hey, live theater is truly live.

The spectacle of The Lion King remains mostly undimmed. The opening procession of The Circle of Life still packs a punch, even if the animal parade seems less full than it once was, and the quieter moments in the show – the lionesses in mourning, the grasslands (in the form of enormous hats) swaying in the wind, Simba’s cris de coeur “Endless Night” under the stars – tend to be more powerful than the noisier numbers. The hyenas’ song “Chow Down” has always been a lowlight of the show and is especially so here.

It’s interesting to see The Lion King in the midst of this nightmare election season. Scar, the egotistical, power-hungry villain, seems awfully familiar, and his grab at power just for the sake of power and his wanton destruction of the pride lands to fuel his own needs, seems a stern warning. The kids who grew up with The Lion King both on film and on stage are of voting age now. Let’s hope its lesson to keep the circle of life healthy and free of narcissistic villains intent on destruction.

Disney’s The Lion King continues through Dec. 31 at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $55-$228 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Disney’s Newsies seizes its musical day

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The Broadway touring company of Disney’s Newsies, a flop movie musical that found new life on stage, lands at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Dan DeLuca (center) is Jack Kelly, the leading newsboy with dreams of Santa Fe in Newsies. ©Disney. Photos by Deen Van Meer

Newsies that unlikely Broadway hit that started out as a flop movie musical, isn’t so much about groundbreaking theater as it is a sterling example of how efficient Disney can be at creating solid, broadly appealing entertainment.

The Broadway production closed last fall, but the tour dances on. If ever there was a show meant for the road, it’s Newsies, a high-energy, stick-it-to-the-man ode to unions of all kind (labor, romantic, brotherly). Now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season, Newsies is the definition of crowd pleaser.

You can feel the machinery working here as Harvey Fierstein amps up and fills out the bare-bones movie screenplay about New York news boys who rebelled against money-grubbing Joseph Pulitzer in 1899. He dutifully provides a strong, intelligent young woman (absent from the movie), raises the dramatic stakes for the leading characters and does his best to make the boys themselves more than their identifying features (Crutchie has a crutch, Spot has a big arm mole, Specs wears…well, you get it). Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman tinker with the movie songs (which are quite good) and a few more, the best of which is the lively “Watch What Happens.”

Director Jeff Calhoun adopts a strategy of speed and motion to keep Newsies leaping through its 2 1/2 hours. There’s hardly a dull moment (except maybe for Pulitzer getting a shave), and much of the show’s entertainment value comes down to the choreography by Christopher Gattelli. These aren’t really news boys, after all. They’re Broadway dancers, and boy oh boy (oh, boys!) do they get to demonstrate their talent. From the gymnastics of “Carrying the Banner” and “Seize the Day” to the tap of “King of New York,” these young men are fountains of twirling testosterone. Acrobatic, graceful and aggressive, these dancers are the show’s motor, and though the plot of the little guys against the big bazillionaire bully has its moments, it’s the sheer joy that comes through the dancing that makes Newsies memorable.

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Dan DeLuca makes for a charismatic leading man as Jack Kelly, the de facto unionizer of the Newsies, and what’s a downtrodden hero without a pipe dream? For Jack, that translates to dreams of life out West in Santa Fe. DeLuca has a strong voice tinged with modern pop stylings. He and Stephanie Styles have a nice chemistry, which helps tone down the schmaltz in their duet, “Something to Believe I,” one of those love songs where they actually have to stop singing so they can kiss. Twice. Styles’ best moment is “Watch What Happens,” which, in addition to being an ode to journalism (yay, newspapers!), captures youthful, if naive, enthusiasm: “Their mistake is they got old. That is not a mistake we’ll be making. No sir, we’ll stay young forever.”

Youth itself is practically a character on this stage. “Newsies” revels in the idealism and, especially, the energy of youth. That’s why the anthems – “Seize the Day,” “Once and For All” – have such power. It’s like Les Miz lite with less flag waving and more dancing on newsprint.

The only really disappointing thing about Newsies is its ending. After all those stirring anthems, the strike is resolved and their are reprises of “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.” No powerful ballad or chorale to capture the moment or perhaps consider the future. Of course the finale/curtain call is overloaded with more hyperkinetic dancing, which is fun, of course, but by this time in the evening, we’re craving something more than melodrama, leaps and a relentlessly cheerful ensemble.

It’s all slick and efficient and impeccably performed – entertaining to be sure, but sometimes big, bold headlines aren’t enough.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed composer Alan Menken and cast member (and Bay Area native) Julian DeGuzman for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Newsies continues through March 15 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$250. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

A spoonful of new songs makes Mary Poppins go down

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Madeline Trumble (center, blue dress) as Mary Poppins, Con O’Shea (center, gold vest) as Bert and Tonya Thompson (center, orange dress) as Miss Corry perform Matthew Bourne’s rousing choreography of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in the touring proudction of Mary Poppins at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. Below: Trumble and O’Shea step in time. Photos by Jeremy Daniel

Some are Shakespeare purists. Or Chekhov purists. Or Star Wars purists. Their simple message is: don’t mess with the original. I happen to be a Mary Poppins purist. Not the original P.L. Travers books – I found them harsh and far from enchanting. No, I’m a purist when it comes to the 1964 Disney film that boasted two remarkable things (and countless other simply wonderful things): the screen debut of a perfectly cast Julie Andrews in the title role and a thoroughly charming original score by brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. Andrews and the Shermans all walked away with Academy Awards and, several years later when, at 4 years old, I saw a re-release of the film in my first time out at a movie theater, it also won my lifelong devotion.

All of that personal preamble is to say that I approached the Disney/Cameron Mackintosh stage adaptation with cautious enthusiasm. The show opened in London in 2004 before heading to Broadway in 2006, where it closed last March.

I saw the show on Broadway and pretty much hated it. The lavish sets and costumes by Bob Crowley were jaw dropping, and some of co-director Matthew Bourne’s choreography was fun. But what ruined it all for me was the new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and the damage done to some of the original Sherman songs from the movie. Another big turn off was the bizarre direction of the actress playing Mary Poppins to play the magical governess as if she were a freaky android with overly perfect elocution and a personality devoid of charm and warmth. Could director Richard Eyre be to blame? I had to think so.

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At long last, the touring Mary Poppins has arrived in San Francisco (in a reversal of the usual pattern, the show made it to San Jose long before San Francisco) as part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre.

Somewhat simplified and stripped down for the tour, this production (directed by Anthony Lyn) is actually more rewarding than the Broadway version. It’s still a hodge-podge mess of the movie and Travers and pop psychology and strained efforts to make something unique out of something that was already unique. But somehow there’s some breathing room here for some charm to squeak through.

At the helm of the charm brigade is Berkeley native Madeline Trumble as Mary Poppins. This Mary actually has a twinkle in her eye and some warmth in her smile. There’s still something arch in the way the character is directed, but Trumble, who sings with the lilt of an operetta star, conveys a sense of loving mischief, which is useful in the role.

Trumble gets some assistance in the charm department from Con O’Shea-Creal as Bert, the sidewalk artist/chimney sweep. His dance moves in the “Step in Time” number (mostly intact from the movie) steal the show, and his much-heralded tap dance around the proscenium frame really is breathtaking.

The best moments in the show involve the original songs. The aforementioned “Step in Time” is a showcase for Bourne’s choreography, as is “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which is by far the most successful adaptation of an original song. The spirit of the original is still there and used as a foundation, while a song like “Spoonful of Sugar,” now set in a ridiculously destroyed kitchen, just flounders.

Among the cut songs are “Sister Suffragette, “The Life I Lead,” “Stay Awake,” “I Love to Laugh” and “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.” In their place are mostly dull songs for Mrs. Banks (“Being Mrs. Banks”), Mr. Banks (“Precision and Order,” which is not nearly as crisp as “The Life I Lead”) and Mr. Banks’ childhood nanny, Miss Andrew (“Brimstone and Treacle”), as well as a loathsome nursery nightmare (“Playing the Game”) and a too-vague stab at inspiration that’s nowhere near as eloquent or inspiring as “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” (“Anything Can Happen”). The new material is respectful and, on paper, it makes sense. But the songs just don’t have the panache or music hall enthusiasm of the Sherman originals, especially when they sit side by side.

With my initial horror at the new songs/adapted songs behind me, I was able to watch the touring production with bemusement. I don’t like the new material any better, but I did admire the touring cast and the enthusiasm with which they approach the material. Broadway seemed cold and machine-like, but the tour has some life in it, and the opening-night audience, which was full of families with children, seemed delighted. Perhaps the young people who experience Mary Poppins first through the stage version will look at the movie and only see what’s missing or dated, whereas I will always see the movie as the purest form – sorry, Mrs. Travers – of the Poppins magic.

Mary Poppins continues through May 12 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $35. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Disney’s Lion King roaring back to San Francisco

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Jelani Remy as Simba and the ensemble in “He Lives in You” from the touring production of Disney’s The Lion King. Photo by Joan Marcus


According to the Wall Street Journal, the King really is the King of Broadway.

News came down last month that Disney’s The Lion King is now Broadway’s all-time highest grossing show. It’s a title the regal hit stole from The Phantom of the Opera. The cumulative gross is staggering: $853,846,062 and counting.

Timing of the news couldn’t have come at a better time. Lion King‘s Tony Award-winning director, Julie Taymor, happened to be in town with producer and president of Disney Theatrical Productions President, Thomas Schumacher. They were with a small group at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville to promote the return of The Lion King to San Francisco this November as part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre. That’s the same theater where the show made its Bay Area debut in 2004 and ran for 43 weeks.

Schumacher, a San Mateo native, was working in Disney’s animation division when The Lion King first began to make noise. “I realize I’ve been working in way or another on The Lion King, practically on a daily basis for 21 years,” Schumacher said. He remembers reading a four –page treatment called King of the Beasts, which was sort of like an animated National Geographic special. The movie, after the usual years of revisions and rewrites, went on to become an international smash movie with a musical score by Elton John and Tim Rice.

Julie Taymor

When talk turned to the possibility of bringing The Lion King to the stage as Disney had done successfully with Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s chairman at the time, Michael Eisner, whom Schumacher called a “brilliant but nutty guy,” wasn’t at all enamored of the lion idea. Schumacher remembers him saying something like, “Andrew Lloyd Webber already did a musical with cats.”

But Schumacher said he had a great idea. He called up that great idea, who happened to be Taymor, the rather brilliant off-Broadway and international opera director who is one of the last people you’d associate with a Disney musical based on an animated film.

Taymor remembered thinking it wasn’t all that much of a stretch to think of her applying her artistic talents to the Disney project. The film, after all, had a dark beauty to it. “When you think about it, the film is about a young child witnessing the death of his father.”

Having worked in Asia and absorbed many aspects of theater and puppetry there, Taymor was intrigued by the challenge and was delighted that Schumacher and his colleagues seemed open to her aesthetic.

“I don’t think we could open The Lion King today,” Schumacher said. “It took a certain renegade spirit to do it, and we wouldn’t have the same freedom today.”

When The Lion King opened on Broadway in the fall of 1997, it didn’t look like anything else in New York. It still doesn’t. With its extraordinary puppetry, masks, costumes and theatrical effects – many of which are centuries old – it’s an original fusion of international theater techniques combined with Taymor’s overriding vision, which makes it all feel of a piece.

The signature theme of the evening, visually speaking, is the circle – “The Circle of Life” is the centerpiece song of the show (and the basis for its jaw-dropping opening scene) – a theme you see in everything from the rising of the sun to the spinning of wheels as puppet deer leap across the stage on little wagons.

“It would be easy to do a sunrise projection,” Taymor explained. “But that would not be live theater. I wanted to stay away from anything like film. This was already a film. So our sun is bamboo and silk. Our audience knows that, but as it rises, light shimmering across it, it’s filled with spirit and soul.”

She also described the show as “magic and toys,” which are “the spirit of theater. It’s in our DNA going way back. It’s not about thinking. It’s about feeling.”

Taymor calls working on The Lion King “the most enjoyable work experience I’ve had…and here I am 15 years later.”

[bonus video]


Disney’s The Lion King runs Nov. 1 through Jan. 13 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets are available as part of SHN’s 2012-13 season package. Subscriptions range from $197.50 to $567.50. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Lea Salonga: Broadway star, Disney princess, cabaret chanteuse

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Tony Award-winning Broadway star Lea Salonga brings her cabaret act to the Fairmont’s Venetian Room as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Photos courtesy of Lea Salonga

It’s the day after the Richmond-Ermet AIDS Foundation, and Lea Salonga, visiting family in the Bay Area, is still glowing because, at the curtain call, she got to hold hands with Shirley Jones.

“Some of the 20somethings there had no idea who Shirley Jones was,” Salonga says. “My jaw dropped on the floor. Come on, people! Watch a rerun of The Partridge Family at the very least. See Oklahoma! or Carousel! She has done Broadway and film and television and she still looks and sounds amazing. If you don’t know Shirley Jones, woe be to you. Those of us from New York all know who she is.”

Salonga is no slouch herself. A Tony winner for Miss Saigon, she is married, has a 5-year-old daughter and makes her home in Manila, in her native Philippines.

She continues to work on stage – her most recent Broadway show was the revival of Les Miserables from 2006 to 2008. Though she’s performed in concert since she was a kid, she’s doing the more mature thing now. With her debut last year at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, she’s officially a cabaret chanteuse.

Lea Salonga 1She’ll make her San Francisco cabaret debut later this month as the season opener for Bay Area Cabaret, now in its second season in the Fairmont Hotel’s venerable Venetian Room. Her original date on Sept. 16 sold out quickly, so a second show, at 5pm on Sept. 17 has been added.

Earlier this year, Salonga turned 40. If it seems she should have hit that mark a while ago, it’s a testament to her already storied career, which became an international success when she was cast as the title role of Miss Saigon at 17.

“Around my birthday, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘If that’s what 40 looks like, bring on 50!’” Salonga says. “I think getting older is great. Actresses worry about people knowing their ages, and I understand that because people are judgmental. But people know my story. I can’t lie about my age. I’m primarily a singer, so age doesn’t matter. The 40s are wonderful so far. You’re young enough to enjoy life, old enough to kick some ass and no one questions you.”

Lea Salonga CD coverSalonga received some glowing reviews for her Carlyle cabaret shows, and she recently released a live CD, recorded in that lovely Manhattan boite, called Lea Salonga: The Journey So Far. The disc surveys her entire career, including her gigs as the singing voice for Disney princesses Jasmine (in Aladdin) and Mulan (in the movie of the same name).

Recently dubbed a Disney Legend, Salonga and fellow princess voices Anika Noni Rose (The Princess and the Frog), Jodi Benson (The Little Mermaid) and Paige O’Hara (Beauty and the Beast), received awards and sang their signature songs.

Salonga’s daughter was in princess heaven at the ceremony, scoring autographs from all the famous ladies – including her own mother. “She was looking up at me saying, ‘Mommy sign my book?’ I said, ‘Honey, I live with you. I can sign your book any time.’ But I thought that was sweet. I actually matter to my daughter!”

In addition to her concert and cabaret work, Salonga is heading back to the musical theater stage with a show called Allegiance with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo and a book by Kuo and Lorenzo Thione. The show, set during the Japanese internment during World War II, will open at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in the summer of 2012.

The musical had a workshop in New York earlier this summer, and the cast included George Takei and Telly Leung. Salonga says the workshop “went really well.” And the really great thing, she says: “My mother really liked it and loved the music. She said based on the music alone the show will fly. Believe me, she minces no words if she thinks something is bad. But this is a show she enjoyed. We’re all excited about the show. I consider myself a transplanted New Yorker, so I’d be very happy if the show ended up there.”

Lea Salonga is in concert as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season at 8pm Sept. 16 (SOLD OUT) and at 5pm Sept. 17 in the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room, 950 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $60 general with discounts for subscribers and those younger than 18. Call 415-392-4400 or visit

[bonus video]
Here’s Lea Salonga singing “Reflection” from Mulan at the Disney Legends award ceremony last month at the D23 Expo.

Mouse tales live again

What would Walt think? Working for the Mouse, Trevor Allen’s one-man recollection about being a costumed character in the Magic Kingdom, returns to Berkeley’s Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

About nine years ago, Trevor Allen lifted the veil on an operation so shrouded in secrecy and intrigue that the merest glimpse inside set people salivating. He revealed what it was actually like to be inside a costumed character in Disneyland.

Oh, yes, This is deeply inside stuff. And sweaty. And hilarious. It’s what you call a theatrical experience bursting with character.

Allen’s autobiographical solo show, Working for the Mouse, premiered at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre in 2002 then transferred to San Francisco. Now Allen is reviving the show for Impact and his own Black Box Theatre at La Val’s Subterranean.

The estimable Nancy Carlin has taken over the directing reins from Kent Nicholson, and the revised show is sharper and funnier than ever.

Allen hits the stage ready for battle in shorts, knee pads (one of the characters is a pint-sized guy, so there’s a lot of time on bended knee) and a vintage “Zoo Crew” T-shirt (that’s how Disneyland’s costumed atmosphere characters are described) emblazoned with Jiminy Cricket. Like any good Disney employee, he’s also wearing his name tag.

We learn that at age 17, Allen left his hometown in the Bay Area to find seasonal work in Disneyland. Throughout the 70-minute show he glances off the deeper theme of not wanting to grow up, but he’s also beginning to flex his young actor muscles. His dream is to be a “face character,” which is to say a character like Peter Pan or Prince Charming who is not engulfed in a full, furry body suit. The face characters also tend to have what every actor desires: voice clearance. They get to talk to the guests rather than remaining a mute sweat bomb in a giant head and stuffed body.

We watch as Allen progresses through the character infrastructure. First he’s Pluto, then pirate Mr. Smee, then a talking Mad Hatter, and we can see him maturing and opening his eyes to some of what the real world – even in its Magic Kingdom form – has in store for him. He gets hazed by the veterans in the department, has his heart broken and gets his best, most creative intentions trampled by the corporate machine.

Throughout, Allen is a dynamic, highly appealing performer, attacking this coming-of-age story with unflagging energy and crack comic timing. Director Carlin has helped Allen warm up the show and find even more edge to the humor. This is not a Disney-bashing experience, though it certainly could be. Even rabid fans of Disneyland (consider me guilty) will savor Allen’s tales of misbehavior, mismanagement and misbegotten Matterhorn sex.

One of the things that tickled me the first time I saw the show was Allen’s Ed Wynn impression – a necessity for anyone playing Disney’s version of the Mad Hatter – and that delight is still very much present here. Another huge piece of enjoyment, especially for Disneyphiles, is the sound design by Cliff Caruthers, which is filled with wonderfully incisive references to rides and movies.

Allen has honed Working for the Mouse to an impressive level, but that’s not all. There are more tales to be told. If the show leaves you wanting more, and it will, check out Allen’s book-in-progress at

Trevor Allen’s Working for the Mouse, a co-production of Impact Theatre and Black Box Theatre, continues an extended run through July 16 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$20. Visit

A jolly holiday with the Sherman Brothers

My love of things Disney is no secret, so imagine what a thrill it was to get a chance to talk with Disney songwriter Richard M. Sherman about his long-running rift with songwriting partner and brother Robert B. Sherman and about the just-released documentary about their lives and careers, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, which was made by Richard’s son Gregory V. Sherman and Robert’s son Jeffrey C. Sherman. The cousins grew up mere blocks from one another in Beverly Hills but didn’t get to know each other until adults because their fathers did not socialize, nor did they allow their families to socialize.

Ah, families.

I wrote a feature on Richard M. Sherman and the movie for the San Francisco Examiner. Read it here.

I also reviewed the movie (four stars) for the Examiner. Read it here.

Both pieces are pretty short, so here’s some bonus Richard M. Sherman.

On his and Bob’s love of Walt Disney: “We were under the wing of a genius. He pushed us that much further, gave us these giant assignments. We adored him, and he was fantastic to us. Let it never be said that Walt was just a figurehead. He was an inspiration to everyone he worked with and was totally a hands-on producer no matter who was directing, writing or composing.”

On his son and nephew collaborating on the film: “It’s another Sherman partnership. Fate has wonderful twists and turns. They came to us about five years ago and asked for permission to do the story of our careers and our life together. I thought, `Sounds good to me.’ I didn’t realize they were going to get so in depth. It’s really an intense documentary.”

On the lesser-known work: “There are songs in a lot of different pictures I’m fond of. I love Shelby Flint’s recording of `Do You Remember me?’ from Snoopy Come Home. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous recording. She sang it with all her heart. There are other obscure things I like: 1Tell Him Anything But Not That I Love Him’ from The Slipper and the Rose — that’s a very mature piece. We’ve written a lot of songs people don’t know. They tend to remember the funny, clever ones.”

On Busker Alley, a Broadway-bound musical that never got to Broadway: “It’s a great show. I’d love to see it re-mounted. I always keep a little prayer in my heart. Who knows? Tomorrow is another day. I’m an optimistic guy. Always have been. There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow!”

On a favorite memory: “It was the opening of Mary Poppins, a gigantic party. My folks were there, and when they went over to Walt, my dad said, `Thank you for the opportunity you’ve given my sons.’ Walt shook my dad’s hand and said, `Al, I want to thank you for your sons.'”

Here’s a preview of the documentary: