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The Disney classic follows the adventures of the young lion, Simba, the heir to Mufasa

Audiences will love the artistry, sets, costumes, masks and singing in the Oregon City Children's Theatre's production of "Lion King Jr.," opening March 9, said Michelle Leigh, OCCT founder and director.

"Under the direction of Lacey Redmond, a longtime performer with OCCT, the [cast members] have gotten these African chants down, as well as really understanding the truly inspirational lyrics of this musical," she said.

Last week, Leigh heard a group behind her practicing when they were not needed on stage.

"I was listening and enjoying them so much, and when I turned around to see who the group consisted of, I was struck when I realized they were not singing with the rehearsal CD. It was just them, and it sounded incredible."

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Detailed masks and colorful costumes help real-life brothers AJ Gaytan, left, as young Simba, and Steven Gaytan, as older Simba, bring their characters to life in 'Lion King Jr.'Leigh also noted that the "Jr." of the title means that the show has been condensed.

"It retains all of the favorite songs, including 'Hakuna Matata' and 'I Just Can't Wait to Be King,' and the story we all love, just in a shortened fashion."

Leigh said that although she has always loved the music in "Lion King," she hesitated to take on the full musical because she wasn't sure she could give it the treatment for which the show is known and loved.

But last summer, a small group of OCCT performers sang two of the show's songs at the Beavercreek Telephone Summer Fest and "watching them have that much fun with it, I knew this was meant to be the next show. It was time to figure out how to make it happen," Leigh said.

The Disney classic follows the adventures of the young lion, Simba, the heir to Mufasa. But Simba's wicked uncle, Scar, plots to usurp Mufasa's throne by luring father and son into a stampede of wildebeests in which Mufasa is killed.

Simba escapes, however, and returns as an adult to reclaim his homeland from Scar with the help of his friends Timon and Pumbaa.

"Simba is played by real-life brothers, AJ and Steven Gaytan. We get to watch Simba as he grows from a cub to an adult lion," Leigh said. "The transformation from one to another has been choreographed by [my daughter] Beth Dodge, and I think it is one of the most cleverly done I have ever seen."

Dodge is OCCT's artistic director, choreographer and instructor.

Performers, costumes

There are 32 performers age 6 and up in the cast of "Lion King Jr." Some are first-timers, while others caught the live theater bug that keeps them coming back for more, Leigh said.

A crew of seven, all under 14, run the backstage, lights, sound and wireless microphones.

Leigh said she and longtime OCCT costumer Becky Pentacost have had the experience of doing all-animal shows in the past and have discovered the fun evolution of taking human clothing and transforming it into animals.

"We don't like covering the kids in cheetah print from head to toe and calling it good," she said.

"It's more fun to take characters like the hyenas, the henchman of the show, and dress them in hoodies, baggy pants and beanies with touches of fur that suggest that animal.

"These choices add a layer of character that is great for the audience visually to really understand who these characters are, especially as we're watching walking and talking animals, and gives the performers more ammunition for development of physical and vocal choices," she said.

Challenges

Two problems immediately presented themselves as the show evolved: the size of one performer and masks.

Timon, the meerkat, is a very small animal, but is played by Jarrison Bolan, who is almost 6 feet tall.

"In the Broadway show, the entire character is a puppet held by a performer, so the focus is the puppet. But I didn't want that. I wanted to see Jarrison, not a puppet. Becky took that challenge and came up with something fun and unique that we are very proud of," Leigh said.

And then there are the masks.

"The Lion King" is known for its masks, but a lucky encounter this summer helped OCCT overcome that potential problem.

"I met Bridgette Larreau, an amazing artist in Portland, and told her about my production and asked if there was any chance she would be interested and/or available to help me out," Leigh said. "She graciously said yes, and the outcome is phenomenal. Some who have seen the pictures of the more than 40 masks on our website think they were Photoshopped, but they weren't."

Rewards

As another production begins to take shape, Leigh said there is always one thing that makes a show memorable for her: seeing the young people take chances, trust one another, and step out of their comfort zones.

They "find that inner strength that allows them to cross the line into where the true joy of performing is found," she said. "In this show I have a few kids who have been up and coming for a couple of years. They have evolved and gained confidence, and now they're commanding leading roles and proving why they belong there."

Leigh added that playing animals is not easy and requires thought about physical appearance, stature and voice choice.

"Being bold and daring at an age when one tends to feel judged is not easy," she said. "Knowing that theater offers kids a safe place where they can try things and know they won't be judged, where they can be surrounded by others who are not laughing at them but supporting them and helping them to make the show as great as it can be — that's the magic of a theater family."

Beavercreek Grange

This is OCCT's third production at the Beavercreek Grange, which is smaller than the previous space the group had for nine years.

"But the challenge was taken head-on and we have discovered how much flexibility there is in a space if you just use what you have," Leigh said.

For this production, designers thrust the stage over 20 feet into the audience and also built a pride rock right over the entrance to the hall.

"The grange is run by the most amazing group of people who've been so overwhelmingly welcoming and thrilled to have us around. They've supported us as we've done our best to give the grange an uplift as far as refinishing the stage floor, painting and cleaning," she said.

"The greatest joy of this move was watching the kids from the show interact with the grange members, who provide the concessions from their kitchen during performances. They stand in the kitchen and have conversations and play simple games. Breaking that generational barrier has made our home even more amazing," Leigh said.

"I'm so proud of this production and what OCCT has done with the challenges that a show like 'Lion King' presents. I am beyond excited to share it with the community."

Roar

What: The Oregon City Children's Theatre presents "Lion King Jr."

When: 7 p.m. March 9, 10, 11, 16 and 17, and noon March 18

Where: Beavercreek Grange, 22041 S. Kamrath Road, just outside of Oregon City.

More: Adults $8, children under 12 and seniors $6. For tickets and information, visit occtheatre.org. Grange members will offer concessions.

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