Sunday, June 28, 2009

'The Lion King' Makes Vegas and Disney a Perfect Match

The Lion King's Tree of Life
(Original Broadway Cast)
Las Vegas audiences are hard to figure when it comes to Broadway shows. What plays well back east and on national tours offers no guarantee of success on the Strip. While "Phantom" and "Mamma Mia" have done well here, "Spamalot," "Hairspray," and "Avenue Q," ehhh, not so much.

So, the question is, how will Disney do in Vegas? Family values meets adult excess, can it really work?

After seeing "The Lion King" last night at Mandalay Bay, my answer is a resounding "YES."

"The Lion King" opened in Las Vegas last month to the same glowing reviews it's received since debuting on Broadway over ten years ago. A spectacle of sight and sound, it's the perfect fit for Vegas show goers accustomed to the sensory overload of Cirque du Soleil or Blue Man Group, but with a lot more emotion and heart. Judging from the enthusiastic, near-capacity crowd I was in, "The Lion King" may just have a bright and lengthy future ahead of it.

The story is familiar to even the most casual of Disney fans. Simba, a young lion, must choose between the two life paths set before him: the path of his father, Mufasa, the mighty king of the pride lands; or the path of least resistance, an escapist world in the jungle where "hakuna matata" ("no worries") is the philosophy to live by. In choosing, Simba must come to grips with his nagging sense of responsibility and ultimately confront his treacherous uncle Scar, who has plans of his own to rule the African savanna.

Giraffes roam the savanna.
"The Lion King" tells its tale on stage utilizing an exquisite blend of lighting, rotating sets and nifty gadgetry. After seeing many stills and clips of the stage production over the years, I always wondered how much of a distraction the combination of live actors, masks and mechanical puppets would be. It turns out to be no distraction at all as they seamlessly meld their animal and anthropomorphic characteristics. The audience's attention is always directed where it needs to be, whether on an actor's face, the lion mask/headdress he or she wears, or the whirligig contraptions that evoke soaring birds and frolicking antelope. It's a feast for the eyes that requires only your very willing imagination to make complete.

The cast is superior, with many of the actors having previously performed in other "Lion King" productions worldwide. Tops among them is Buyi Zama as the playful but wise baboon shaman Rafiki. Her opening chants in her native Zulu dialect fill the theater with joyful noise, and as the story progresses she is the glue that holds it together, connecting the characters to one another and pointing Simba towards his destiny. Also noteworthy is Thom Sesma, one of the few newcomers to "The Lion King" cast, gleefully slimy and menacing as Scar.

Buyi Zama (Rafiki) at the
D23 meet and greet
Kudos to Disney's official fan club, D23, for organizing last night's "behind-the-scenes experience." After the show, D23 members were treated to a meet-and-greet with members of the cast, who, despite being tired from giving two performances that day, were very gracious and generous with their time. They stayed well after the show to answer questions, sign autographs and pose for pictures. I was very pleased to see that Buyi Zama was just as energetic and fun in person as her stage persona was. I also enjoyed chatting with Patrick Kerr, who shared how it took him two months to master the performance puppetry of his character Zazu, Mufasa's horn billed majordomo. Also joining us were Thom Sesma, Alton White (Mufasa), Kissy Simmons (Nala) and Jacquelyn Renae Hodges (Shenzi).

"The Lion King" has on open-ended run at Mandalay Bay with plans of sticking around for a while. I see no reason why it can't. Ten-plus years in production have not reduced its lustre. It's a thrilling, engaging, fun and heart-warming experience that more than holds its own against any other entertainment offering on the Las Vegas Strip.

Who said Las Vegas and Disney couldn't mix? No worries here.

Please Digg this article!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

My Close Encounter with the King of Pop

Without realizing it at the time, I almost tripped over Michael Jackson.

On a trip to Universal Studios Orlando in 2003, I was stumbling back to my room at the Royal Pacific after a late night at CityWalk. It was about 1:00 a.m. as I turned a corner and walked up a sidewalk leading into the back of the hotel. Sitting on the ground, legs outstretched, was a very familiar looking guy with dark hair and a pale complexion, wearing a white shirt and dark pants. He was slumped against a wall next to the doorway of a video arcade. In what little light there was, he appeared to be reading a paperback book. There wasn't anyone else around who I could see.

I had to maneuver carefully to avoid stepping on him. As I passed, we glanced at each other and smiled. We may have said hello.

In my slightly inebriated state, I thought, "A Michael Jackson impersonator at Universal. Cool." And up to my room I went.

That was no impersonator.

The next day, my friends were abuzz about news that the actual King of Pop had brought a group of kids to Universal Studios and had taken over an entire floor of our hotel.

"Why didn't someone tell me?" I whined. "I saw him last night. I could've at least said something intelligent to him."

Or not, considering the number of beers I'd had.

As today's sudden passing of Jackson rages over the news networks, blogosphere and Twittersphere, I keep replaying that very brief encounter in my head. Then, he would've been a year beyond the baby dangling incident in Berlin, but two years away from the media circus child molestation trial that would move him from "strangely eccentric" status to "full freak" in the court of public opinion. At that single moment in Florida, though, he was just a guy--no bodyguards, no entourage, no glove, no mask, no dark shades--enjoying some late night quiet time to himself while some of the kids traveling with him played in the arcade.

I don't expect he got a lot of quiet time in his life. Maybe it was better I didn't realize it was actually him.

Love him or hate him, you probably have a strong opinion about Michael Jackson. Maybe more than one. He was a ridiculously gifted entertainer known equally for his off-the-chart bizarre behavior. Still, if you grew up in the '70s or '80s, at least one of his songs is in your life's soundtrack ("Off the Wall" is in mine). If you're a Disney fan from a slightly later time, say around 1986, you know Jackson as Captain EO, leader of a misfit gaggle of alien creatures on a mission to bring music to a mysterious planet ruled by Angelica Huston (in her best Wicked-Witch-Meets-Queen-Alien mode).

That eponymous 3-D film was a major coup for Disney, considering the talent involved. Produced by George Lucas and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, "Captain EO" showcased the era's biggest musical superstar at the absolute height of his popularity--was there ever a better fit for Disneyland than the perpetual man-child Jackson? Despite looking a bit goofy when he wasn't performing his signature dance moves onscreen--a rough and tumble leading man he wasn't--Jackson was clearly having the time of his life, making the 17-minute flick an entertaining hoot with theater-filling special effects. It would play for a dozen years at at least one Disney park or another. You can still enjoy it on YouTube, even if that format doesn't really do the film justice.

"Captain EO" was the subject of the cover story for the Fall 1986 issue of "Disney News." In the article, producer Rusty Lemorande didn't hesitate to single out Jackson: "He was a composer, a co-choreographer, a dancer, a singer, an actor, a collaborator on every level, and it each case, he collaborated with an amount of passion unequaled by anyone else in the show."

Time and circumstance have clouded Jackson's legacy. We sometimes lose sight that at his peak, there was nothing the man couldn't do.

For me, I'll always remember him as the guy I recognized right away, but didn't.

Rest in peace Michael. I hope you enjoy your book.

Please Digg this article!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Experiencing Bob Gurr and Fifty Years of the Matterhorn, Monorail and Subs

Called upon by Walt Disney to design the Matterhorn Bobsleds, imagineer Bob Gurr wasn't sure if he was the right guy for the job.

"I never designed roller coasters," he says. "I hate 'em."

For someone who's never been a fan of thrill rides, apparently he did alright as the Matterhorn, along with the Monorail and the Submarine Voyage (with and without Nemo), mark their 50th anniversary at Disneyland today.

Gurr was the guest of honor last weekend at a dinner reception in Anaheim hosted by Ape Pen Publishing and the 1313 Club. Joining him were fellow Disney Legend Ron Dominguez, audio-animatronics whiz Garner Holt and former Anaheim city manager Keith Murdoch. It was an evening of nostalgia and fond recollections with the man who often says, "If it moves on wheels at Disneyland, I probably designed it."

Bob Gurr
That's no exaggeration. Gurr's credits include the Autopia, the vehicles on Main Street and the Haunted Mansion's omnimover system, among many others. He also helped design the inner workings of Abraham Lincoln for Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. In fact, Gurr recently donated the upper torso of the original Lincoln animatronic to Walt Disney's daughter Diane Disney Miller for display in the Walt Disney Family Museum, opening in San Francisco this fall.

There were a number of challenges to designing and building the Matterhorn. The mountain shell was easy enough, as were the very first tubular steel roller coaster tracks. The problem was making one fit inside the other. During one period, Gurr says, he hand drew a different track a day for two weeks to come up with a design that would work. Once accomplished, the actual construction went much smoother. "We just shut up and did the work," he says. "It was so absolutely simple." Simple maybe, but still tricky to get past building inspectors. Rather than get design sketches approved prior to construction, as was the norm, Gurr and his crew submitted the final certified drawings immediately after each component was built. Somehow it worked. Barely a year after their mutual groundbreakings, the Matterhorn, Monorail and Subs were completed--and Bob Gurr was the design master behind each of them.

Not that he always gets the credit. Shown a copy of a U.S. Patent Office filing with Joseph Fowler named as the designer of the sub ride vehicles, Gurr smiles, prints his name next to Admiral Joe's, then signs it.

Hey, if it moves on wheels at Disneyland . . .

Please Digg this article!