Disney musical bows in Johannesburg

JOHANNESBURG — Ten years after “The Lion King” bowed on Broadway, Simba has come home.

The South African production of the stage behemoth — directed by Tony winner Julie Taymor but cast entirely with local actors — opened June 6 in Johannesburg before an audience that included Disney president Robert Iger, Walt Disney Theatrical Prods. head Thomas Schumacher, lyricist Tim Rice and Oprah Winfrey at the Montecasino Teatro, a new 1,900-seat house specially built by casino and entertainment complex owners Tsogo Sun for the production.

While critics have been dishing out kudos for performances by the 53-member cast, South Africans are showing that Tsogo Sun’s $14 million investment in the new state-of-the-art theater was worth the gamble.

Advance sales were so good that even before opening night, the season was extended from Aug. 12 to Sept. 9 and then again to Oct. 7.

South African theater impresario Pieter Toerien, who is co-producing with Grammy-winning composer Lebo M, has been responsible for bringing Broadway hits, such as “Les Miserables,” “Cats,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” to the country.

Toeriensays he had always dreamed of bringing “The Lion King” home to South Africa, but there was no theater large enough to accommodate the production. When Tsogo Sun started planning an expansion to its successful Montecasino complex, Toerien persuaded its execs to tailor a theater to suit his “Lion King” needs, as well as providing a home for other big musicals.

Toerien also has been instrumental in keeping ticket prices as low as possible. Thanks to sponsorship by state telecommunications company Telkom, tickets cost significantly less than in London or New York, ranging between $20 and $60.

“Audiences can relate to the character of Mufasa, a dignified leader — very much the Mandela type,” says Lebo M, who tweaked the script for South African auds.

He hopes the production will create opportunities for South Africans in theater.

“Anybody that works in ‘The Lion King,’ because of its technical complexity, it’s almost like you now have this university certificate where you can work anywhere else in the world with any other show,” he says. “The show brings a new level of sophistication to local theater.”

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