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Children's Theatre comes roaring back with 'The Lion King Jr.'

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The circle of life continues for the Children’s Theatre with Disney’s “The Lion King Jr.”

The return to the Schwartz Center for the Arts in Dover marks the first time the youth acting troupe has performed a show since March of last year. Back then, it had to cancel a production of “Sherlock Holmes” two days before opening night due to concerns over the coronavirus.

The cast of 32 kids is glad to be back doing what they love — singing, dancing and acting.

For Guillermo Cabrera, 14, it’s another chance to shine, as he was originally cast in the title role of “Sherlock Holmes” but never got a chance to step on stage.

“It was disappointing, but I’m glad we’re back, and I’m excited for this show,” he said this week during rehearsals. Guillermo plays Simba, the lion king of Pride Rock and protagonist of the show.

“The Lion King Jr.” is a condensed edition of the Broadway musical that was sandwiched around two film versions of the story.

As excited as the kids are to get back into the theater, it seems audiences are, as well. The two performances next weekend are sold out, as seating capacity is limited due to social distancing protocols still in effect. Plans are tentative for a second show May 9, but details were not solidified as of Thursday.

For updates, visit the Children’s Theatre Facebook page or here.

The African savanna comes to life on stage with Simba, Rafiki and the rest of the cast of characters, as they journey from Pride Rock to the jungle and back again.

The brightly colored costumes and sets needed for such a production have come together for the show.

“We have always had plenty of parent support and volunteers, but this show in particular required a lot of costuming and construction of set pieces that would move easily to create the Pridelands, Pride Rock, Scar’s cave, the jungle and the grasslands,” said co-director Sharon Crossen.

“Parents were willing to make cardboard cutouts, mask headdresses, all sorts of animal costumes and more. We even had some grandparents and community artists, who supported these kids and us, as we worked together to bring live theater back to the Dover community, even as COVID restrictions remain.”

The restrictions have caused some disruptions during rehearsals. With a mask mandate still in effect, the cast and directors have been forced to figure how best to protect themselves and to be heard.

Face masks were tried and then full face shields.

“The face shields were good to see everyone, but the sound comes back for the kids, so they can’t hear the music and the others on stage, so they feel like they have to sing louder,” said music director Tim Plimpton.

“So we’ve kind of gone back and forth, and we’re still trying out things.”

They won’t be able to get into the more spacious Schwartz Center until the day before the May 8 opening, so right now, they are taking an “educated guess” on how the show will sound, Mr. Plimpton said.

Next on their list to try are clear masks that just cover the mouth, to be used in tandem with headset microphones.

For Abigail Peppard, who plays Timon, the mask dilemma has just been one of the many challenges the cast has had to overcome.

“It’s different, but it hasn’t been that bad,” she said.

Ami Leaming, co-director of the show with Ms. Crossen, said that’s been one of a few problems for the company.

“We hadn’t seen the kids much since last year. Now, we’ve been seeing them four nights a week, but we hadn’t seen their faces until we started using the face shields, so even that for us was very rewarding,” she said.

Ms. Leaming praised the young actors for their perseverance under difficult circumstances.

“They have met and exceeded every expectation — the masks, the temperature taking at every rehearsal, sanitizing. They have been completely cognizant of that and understand the importance,” she said.

“We’ve been distancing as much as we can in our limited space. That’s been a challenge, too. It’s just been amazing, an amazing cast and what we have asked of them. They have gone above and beyond.”

Others helping to lead the cast are choreographer Dawn Mandalas, dance captain Lillian Mandalas and student director Niko Mandalas.

All agree that any hardships are well worth it to get back together with friends and fellow actors.

“I was just bored at home, so it was great to be able to get back here. There wasn’t much to do. I missed it a lot,” said Lee Peppard, who plays Zazu, the red-billed hornbill bird.

Most of the performers have been with the Children’s Theatre for many years and are also in their schools’ drama programs, which have had to curtail their performances, as well.

“Everything we’ve done has been virtual with school. So it’s great to be back in person with everyone,” said Polytech High School student Cassidy Yiengst, who plays the adult Nala, the best friend of Simba.

Ms. Leaming said bringing the youths back together has been great.

“Really, for a lot of these kids, I think it’s just happiness. It’s like any other activity, if it’s sports or anything like that. They know each other, and they’re comfortable, and there’s respect, and they all pitch in. It’s just such an incredible feeling to be a part of every show,” she said.

The choice of “Lion King Jr.” to restart the season at the Children’s Theatre was made by Ms. Crossen after she saw it on Broadway. Ms. Leaming agreed that it’s a perfect show to put on at the Children’s Theatre.

“You can’t do it with every (Broadway) show that’s appropriate because there’s not always a junior version written for it. But in this case, it’s adapted, and it’s adapted well. It’s obviously not as complicated. Some songs are cut back a little bit, but you still get the full feeling of the show,” she said.

“It’s about family. It’s emotional, and it’s important to us in that it calls for a completely ensemble, diverse cast. ... That really speaks to our hearts.”

It’s a story that is familiar to all cast members, whether they’ve seen either movie or the Broadway show.

“This was my dream role,” said 11-year-old Caezar Falu, who plays the young Simba. “It’s one of my favorite shows, and it’s who I wanted to play.”

Ace Clark, 17, plays the embittered lion Scar, who lost a chance to be king. As one of the veterans of the theater, he was excited to play this part and is marveling about the way things are going.

“It’s all going really well. The younger kids especially are doing great. Caezar is one of my favorites. He’s just great,” he said.

Alexandra Cseke, 18, plays Rafiki the mandrill.

“I didn’t even remember Rafiki from the show, but it’s a fun character to play,” she said.

Justin Truitt, 13, has the unenviable task of playing Pumbaa, the gluttonous warthog. His large and bulky costume is a hallmark of the production.

“It’s not too bad once you get used to it. But I like the character. It’s fun to play the comic relief,” he said.

With a smaller cast in comparison to some of the other Children’s Theatre shows, many actors play multiple parts, with quick changes going on throughout. There are also five languages spoken during the staging.

For Abigail, that last part is no big deal.

“I’m in Spanish immersion at (Central Middle) School, so I’m used to speaking different languages,” she said.

Ms. Leaming said she hopes there will be no last-minute regulations handed down that will prevent this show from being canceled or playing to an even smaller audience.

“Whatever happens, we’ll roll with it. That’s what we do around here,” she said.

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