A Roaring Success “The Lion King Jr”


LaVilla School of the Arts Drama Department Review

Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom dualcritics@comcast.net

LaVilla School of the Arts presented Disney’s “The Lion King Jr” for a three-day run during November 19 – 21, 2015 at the school in Jacksonville, Florida.

The Lion King roared as a cast of twenty-eight students and one adult non-student appeared on stage in an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical created especially for middle school students. LaVilla’s production played to an almost full-capacity audience on the Saturday afternoon when we saw the play.

The Broadway version debuted in 1997 and was based on Disney’s earlier animated film version, which was released in 1994. The musical, which is still running on Broadway, has had over 7,000 performances to date. The production is the third longest running musical in history and no end is in sight, as it remains extremely popular.

Director Richard DeSpain, who moved to Jacksonville in the 1980s, currently teaches theatre at LaVilla, and is well-known locally as an accomplished and award-winning actor and director. With the assistance of an outstanding staff, a dedicated Booster Club, and talented actors, he has turned an ambitious and challenging musical into a truly magical experience for actors and audiences.

We saw the road show version of the original in 2007 as part of Jacksonville’s Artist Series. This shortened version contains most of the songs from the original, which were sung by LaVilla students in English, and in part in the African languages of Setswana, Swahili, Zulu, and Xhosa.

It was inspired casting to have the role Mufasa, the Lion King who is Simba’s father, played by an adult, especially when that adult was Dewitt Cooper III. His experience as an actor, professional dancer, teacher, and director positively influenced all the performers.

Rafiki, a mandrill, was marvelously portrayed in colorful garb by Don’Neisha McFadden. Gracie Marsh played Sarabi, the queen who is Simba’s mother. Garrett Iwae appeared as Young Simba, a likable and playful cub who disappears for several years after the death of his father. When the older Simba, portrayed by Dylan Lewis, returns to his home in the Pridelands, he is a handsome mature lion, but one much wiser in the ways of the world.

Scar (Caroline Owen), a rival for the throne, was evil and frightening as he and the three hyenas (Jacob Desuyo, Riley Gutzke, and Auggie Pulliam) sang “Be Prepared,” one of the show’s best songs. Lauren Hancock was Sarafina, the mother of Nala (Sarah Mills), Simba’s young playmate. The grown Nala is played by Angelina Rodgers, who sang the haunting “Shadowland.”

Three of the most colorfully costumed and most animated characters included Timon, a meerkat (Emma Yeoman); Pumbaa, a warthog (Mia Woods); and Zazu, a hornbill (Mikell Graf). At the beginning of Act II, Timon, Pumbaa, and Young Simba sang “Hakuna Matata,” one of the most popular and well-known numbers in the show.

Fourteen other hard working students appeared as lions, wildebeests, and other creatures. This energetic ensemble included Anna Beyer, who also was dance captain, Athena Chialtas, Caroline Davis, Alexandra Hennessey, Tracy Lukach, Jeremiah Moorehead, Nicholas Nasta, Victoria Pregent, Adrenna Pulliam, Grace Royal, Lana Taylor, Evelyn Thomas, Alice Woodward, and Jordan Wright.

Two songs featured the entire company. “Circle of Life” was the opening number; “Luau Hawaiian Treat,” which was added to the Junior adaptation, was performed just before the finale.

Costume Supervisor Angelica Leach and her staff, created outstanding costumes for the entire cast. Kudos go as well to Makeup Artist Kay Harrison and her assistants Chelsea Caroll and Elena Every. Both costumes and makeup were very professionally done.

Director DeSpain used the main stage as an entire open area, allowing for a great deal of physiclal movment and dance by Choreographer Michelle Ottley-Fisher. Additionally, a long platform added to the stage extended the performance space through the middle of the auditorium. The platform had seating on both sides, bringing those marvelous performers up close to the delight of everyone.

Also on the Creative Team were Theresa King & Shawn Pendry (Vocal Directors), Abbie Malkewitz (Production Design & Technical Direction), Alexis Szczukowski (Stage Manager), and Caroline
Guiler (Assistant Stage Manager).

Congratulations on the selection of The Lion King Jr. It was obvious that the students were dedicated to the task of performing this musical and that the audience was delighted with the results.



About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.