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The Lion King Cast Talks About Their Animal Transformations

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The theater goes dark and suddenly, a heavily adorned tribesperson appears on stage and that familiar tune begins: "Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba!" The chant gets gradually louder as actors costumed as wild animals start filing in through the isles. Soon, the stage is full of creatures all there for the purpose of honoring the new future king of the land.

Just like the 1994 animated Disney film by the same name, The Lion King musical production begins with an energy that stays with the audience throughout the entire show.

The costumes, the puppets, the music -- all have transformative powers that move both audience and cast. While promoting the production, cast members who play Mufasa, Simba, Nala, and a lead ensemble dancer gathered at the Broward Center to talk about the show.

See also: South Floridian Mykal Laury Dances His Way Through Lion King

L. Steven Taylor plays the once almighty king of the pride lands, Mufasa. The actor started with the company in New York City in 2006 for a year before taking a leave of absence and returning in 2012. When Taylor first started playing Mufasa he was a much younger man, he said that because of that he played up the surface aspects of the character. Now older and wiser, he's reaching deeper. "I was a young man the first time I was doing this, so it's easy as a younger actor to focus on the more surface parts of the character Mufasa, because he is 'god-like' and he is 'kingly.'" Taylor said. "But I think now, I'm exploring more the human aspect and just more the internal part of the character because that's where I am in my life."

For Amyia Burrell, getting cast as part of the ensemble was like coming full circle. When she was a child, she remembers her mother taking her and her sister to an audition in California for the role of young Nala. She didn't get the role then, but when she was older and working for Disney in Orlando, she tested her luck and auditioned.

Burrell has been with the traveling troupe for eight years now and she says how every night is a different experience for her. "I leave the stage every night and there's not one night that I'm able to just kind of zone out and not think about the show or not think about what I'm doing... I think that that's probably the most challenging part [as a performer]: staying in that moment and really giving off the vision that the directors and producers want for the show."

Jelani Remy, the actor who plays Simba, chimed in to agree with Burrell, noting the beauty and uniqueness of live theater. He admits to having purchased The Lion King's soundtrack on cassette -- not CD or on iTunes, but a legit, old-school cassette. Remy described how he would sing along and pretend to be every character. "To be able to put it together and to feel the heart that goes into putting the production up, it's such a humbling and amazing experience," he said.

"The animated film came out a year before I was born, and then it started on Broadway the year I was born," said Nia Holloway, the actress who plays Nala. "So to get cast in the show and be in a production that's been around since I've been around, it's just amazing every moment I get to spend here."

Holloway and Remy play the two lovers on stage, managing romance while balancing the sizable lion masks on their heads. Though at times the puppet-heads can be distracting for the audience, for the actors, they become a part of themselves.

"You become one with your puppet," Remy,said, he added that the costume has become so familiar that it's strange when the Simba mask isn't on his head.

"A lot of it is very fun; the way we move and them helps tell the story when we are in those lovey-dovey moments," Holloway explained. "The way you move your head to the side," she demonstrates by doing a soft head tilting motion, "You infuse it to tell the story."

All four actors agreed that the audience was going to love the show, especially if you've never seen it before. "It's going to be extremely amazing to actually see," Holloway said while articulating every syllable of amazing, "because the animated film is beautiful, but to see it acted out by humans, and to get the human aspect as well as the animal aspect with the puppets, it's amazing."

"It's kind of like a sensory overload," Taylor added, "and I think that's why people can see it so many times. It's because there's always something new to find out about the show and something new to look at and something new to experience with the show, depending on where you are your life."

The Lion King will be taking up residence at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts until February 1. Showtimes are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $34.25. Visit browardcenter.org.

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