By John Benson
On the surface, a stage musical based on a children’s animated film featuring mostly puppets doesn’t drum up much excitement.
That is, unless you’re talking about the Tony Award-winning musical “The Lion King,” which returns to Northeast Ohio for the first time since 2007. The national tour comes to Cleveland Tuesday through Aug. 4 at Playhouse-Square’s State Theatre.
As for those 230-plus puppets, which range from small birds to massive elephants, the job of keeping the animals in good shape belongs to Puppet Supervisor Michael Reilly, who over the last quarter of a century worked on “Les Miserables,” “The Who’s Tommy,” “Miss Saigon,” “Phantom of the Opera” and more.
That means if something breaks or goes wrong during the show, Reilly and his staff are puppet MDs performing triage or transplants on the fly.
“We never like to think of ourselves as puppet doctors, it implies the puppets are sick, but we absolutely are responsible for everything,” said Reilly, calling from Tulsa, Okla. “If somebody loses a limb, we’re responsible for putting it back on. Five to 10 things happen throughout the show on the average.”
Mind you, these aren’t your average puppets. Reilly said there are many different kinds of puppetry needed to pull off “The Lion King.” There are hand puppets and others are worn on the heads of actors.
In addition, some wear oversized body suits. Then there are the big animals – such as the elephant – that are manipulated by performers inside to create a larger than life experience.
“That’s the thing about ‘Lion King,’ we don’t settle for one way of doing things,” Reilly said. “But the puppets are never a hurdle for the audience. They do seem like they would be but when you sit down and watch, within the first minute you’ve stopped examining how the puppet and the human interact and you just accept that they’re one. I don’t want to say it’s totally seamless, because that’s one of the tenets of our shows that we allow you to see how things work, but I do think you just accept it and it’s never an issue.”
Clearly audiences have no problem using their imaginations and making the leap to the African savanna. “The Lion King” is among the most successful titles in entertainment history, with a cumulative gross in excess of $5 billion. Naturally the Broadway musical includes Elton John and Tim Rice’s award-winning score from the feature film. Reilly said it’s the centerpiece of the show.
“We have the best opening number in all of theater with ‘The Circle of Life,’” Reilly said. “When people sit down and the lights go down and then the stage lights come up, and Rafiki sings that first note and all of the animals come down in a parade. I still get goose bumps watching it, and I’ve seen it thousands of times. So if you’re not impressed by ‘Circle of Life,’ then there’s nothing that’s going to move you.”