Tip: Don’t let the “junior” label in “Lion King Jr.” fool you, or keep you away from attending one of the final performances this weekend at Mamiya Theatre.

The production, besieged with casting challenges last week, is a surprisingly splendid springboard of achievement for the 23 youths in the company that showcases professionalism, commitment, and pride. For the producers, Mo‘olelo Studios (in partnership with the Saint Louis Center for the Arts), this staging of Disney’s “Lion King Jr.” reflects a keen commitment to enlighten, elevate and educate youngsters employing theater arts to shape a  brand of storytelling through a circle of life in singing, dancing, and acting.

What a thrill!

Director Kyle Kakuno and choreographer Christine Yasunaga are the adults who have polished this show with talent from high school down to middle school. Kakuno, who has directed numerous musicals at Mamiya, has lured students from Saint Louis, Sacred Hearts Academy, campuses in proximity to the theater, but many come from other private and public schools this year, including Kamehameha, Farrington, Punahou, Le Jardine Academy,  Catholic Academy and Mililani.

Yasunaga, who was originally the lone Asian ensemble trouper in the Broadway company of “Lion King,” surely has contributed to the tone and temperament of this show, bringing insider knowledge rubbing off from working with Tony Award-winning director Julie Taymor and choreographer Garth Fagan.

If you recall the distraction last week, several key roles had to be recast. The shuffle meant the replacements had only three days of rehearsals before last Saturday’s delayed premiere.

Yet, you’d never know, if the problem didn’t go public in this column.

So first, kudos to these valuable and valiant souls, who stepped into the production:

  • Nathaniel Ryan-Kern, as Mufasa, with commanding and kingly presence plus a rich, resounding voice.
  • Nainoa Kebo, as Simba, with youthful charm and boyish vulnerability.
  • Cocomi Mehring, as Nala, with comforting motherly concern.
  • Lyric Illiana Bernard,  as Rafiki, with perhaps the best booming voice projecting authority and advice
  • Zander Woolsey, as Pumbaa, the most comedic and carefree figure with constant “Hakuna Matata” philosophy.

You sense this will be an exhilarating thriller from the get-go, when the parade of puppet figures – elephant, rhinoceros, lionesses and more – parade from back of the house and trekking in both the left and right aisles, reaching the stage where Rafiki is rendering “Circle of Life” amid  loud howls and  appreciative cheers from the audience.

Isaiah Castillo is Scar, Pomaikai Kauka is Young Simba, in “Lion King. Jr.” at Mamiya Theatre.

You know the plot: Mufasa, a visionary, prepares Young Simba (Pomaikai Kauka) to one day become his successor as King to rule over the savanna, but Scar (Isaiah Castillo) the king’s brother and uncle to the cub, has other ideas, and the young successor disappears for a spell to sort out his options after the nasty uncle kills Mufasa, blaming Simba, who escapes to the dark side beyond the  Pride lands, despite the efforts of Zazu (Reagan Beissel) skillfully manipulating  the hornbill bird puppet) to warn him of imminent dangers.

Simba’s  journey encounters the team of Pumbaa and Timon (Christopher Casupang) and is threatened by three hyenas – Shenzi (Maya Yoshida),  Banzai (Lloyd Smith) and Ed (Aaron Dela Cruz) — eager to eat him.  

The production is blessed to utilize the remarkably professional puppets that elevate the show well beyond the “junior” label. These exquisite creations – from the elephant and to the pair of zebras, from the lionesses to the stellar Pumbaa figure – were created by Alison Joy Bishop  of Kamehameha Schools, which gave access and use of these remarkable puppets for this show, a grand gesture that reflects the cooperation and kindness of community sharing of valuable assets and skills.

There’s an element or two of special additions to “Lion King Jr.,” including a brief hula skirt worn by Timon, obviously to earmark this as a homegrown effort, and a couple of instances of “starlight” on the ceilings of the theater (look up, you’ll see ‘em) I have not experienced on Broadway or the earlier national touring company at Blaisdell Concert Hall.

In all ranks of the show, from costumes (designed by Chris Valles, with Cathy Kakuno as costumer) to scenic design (Nigyl Nissan, creator of Pride Rock), from lighting (Leo Uitto) to music (Miguel Cadoy III),  from sound (Steven Nelson) to makeup and wigs (Jess Aki), excellence prevails.

Everything you might expect – the staged stampede scene, first on video, then live with costumed dancers, the scene with the grass – are here.  And quite essential, for spectators and actors alike, there is a keepsake playbill with data and bios to navigate you through the show.

And yes, Mo‘olelo lives up to its mission name, of  sharing and passing down stories, myths or legends. There’s a lot of pride on and off stage. …

Lion King Jr.”

A Disney musical with music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, and a book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi.

When:  7:30 p.m. March 31, 2 p.m. April 1, and 6 p.m. April 2, preceded by a 4:30 p.m. gala, with cocktails and pupu.

Where: Mamiya Theatre, at Saint Louis School/Chaminade University campus

Tickets: $15, at www.moolelostudios.simpletix.com

And that’s Show Biz. …

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