Mo‘olelo Productions’ “The Lion King Jr.” will resume and wind up its run this Thursday (March 30) through Sunday (April 2) at Mamiya Theatre on the St. Louis School/Chaminade University campus.
This, after the producers faced an overwhelming challenge last week that included the cancellation of two shows, a search to recast four lead roles, and a push-back of the premiere till this past Saturday (March 25). So, a sense of normalcy, minus the stress, prevails this week, as “King” finally has regained its footing.
One of the indefatigable lucky charms of the show – who has links to the award-winning original Broadway cast — is Christine Yasunaga, now a Hawaii choreographer and dance teacher who was in the original ensemble of the groundbreaking Broadway musical in 1998.
She is choreographer of “Lion King Jr.,” sharing insider insights into the recreation of the musical with a cast of island youths, after working with mentors of the long running Disney musical.
Twenty-five years ago, Yasunaga was the lone islander and sole Asian member selected to join the all-black original cast, in director-designer-puppeteer Julie Taymor’s theatrical visionary production depicting jungle animals and puppets in Disney’s remarkable groundbreaking hit musical.
The stage show was inspired by Disney’s animated film so the transfer to the stage meant performers had to portray animals in retelling the tale of the young lion Simba’s journey of self-discovery following the death of his father Mufasa.
Yasunaga was then a Broadway journeyman, cast in the ensemble of the all-Asian musical hit, “The King and I,” which was in production at that time.
“I remember reading a Backstage paper about an open call for 400 women,” said Yasunaga, uncertain of what the process might be nor the nature of the talent call nor how the show might impact her career.
She auditioned anyway “and made it through all the cuts over several months,” she said.
“Lion King” traditionally is known for its brilliant ensemble work, where dancers and singers play many roles, changing costumes, masks and headpieces amid innovative motifs and moods that make humans appear as animals, including lions, hyenas, elephants, birds, giraffes, gazelles, zebras, antelopes, rhinos, mandrills, meercats, mandrills, warthogs, wildebeest and more.
Garth Fagan, a heralded Jamaican whiz of modern dance, was choreographer of “Lion King,” and fused the spirit and vision to embody and reflect the vibrance of African wildlife as perceived by Taymor.
So, when Mo‘olelo director Kyle Kakuno tapped Yasunaga to become his show’s choreographer, she leapt to the challenge.
“It’s really been fun,” said Yasunaga. “I’ve been able to open up and tell all my stories and share anecdotes. And details only I knew from working with both Julie and Garth, passing on some ideas with our tech people. There were reasons why we did certain things.”
As an ensemble trouper, she had multiple roles, playing a gazelle, a hyena beast and made butterflies flutter in one scene. “Ensemble people work the hardest, really,” she said. “I had 13 costume changes.”
Coming from the ranks of an Equity member, Yasunaga has treated “Lion King Jr.” as a professional production. “I’ve thought of some of Garth’s ways mixed with my own,” she said. “I’m proud of the cast … and have been pushing the kids to excel, to reach goals. A lot of dancers have been trying so hard; their positive energy is exciting.”
With last week’s behind-the-scenes in-house drama, there’s been a wave of fellowship and kokua from schools that have previously staged “Lion King Jr.” “Puppet costumes have come from Kamehameha Schools, so we’ve been lucky to share resources and work together,” said Yasunaga.
And when Mo‘olelo had to recast four actors of college-age students ineligible to perform, based on Music Theatre International’s licensing guidelines, it reached out to other schools such as Kamehameha and Punahou which cooperated, enabling director Kakuno to cast and prep the replacements with only three days of rehearsal time before the first performance on Saturday.
Yasunaga journeyed back to New York, for the 25th anniversary celebration of the show last year, reconnecting with some of her colleagues and mentors. From director Taymor, a respected and innovative award-winning puppeteer, she had learned, “Plants and animals don’t have color.” So, race never has been an issue in the cast.
In 1998, “Lion King” was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won six, for Best Musical, Best Direction (Taymor), Best Choreography (Fagan), Best Orchestration, Best Lighting and Best Scenic Design.
Besides “Lion,” Yasunaga has been teaching a weekly jazz class at Hawaii Ballet Theatre but her next choreography assignment will be “The Bodyguard,” opening May 26 at Diamond Head Theatre.
It’s the Whitney Houston musical, which was ready to roll but was delayed at DHT at the beginning of the pandemic three years ago. . “We’ll have the same creative team, but there will be some cast members returning. But the girl playing Whitney Houston is pregnant and can’t do it.”…
“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 30 and 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. …