'Be Prepared' for J-Art Youth's The Lion King Jr.

2/17/2017 | Chris Maza

Category: February

Braedon Donahue (Young Simba) and Brooklyn Moore (Timon) practice their lines.
Reminder Publications photo by Chris Maza

This March, the auditorium of the Springfield Jewish Community Center will be filled with the animals of the Pride Lands of Africa as the J-Art Youth theater group brings the Broadway production The Lion King Jr. to the stage.

Directed by Tony Jones, a troupe of 43 children in kindergarten through eighth grade will tell the tale of Simba, the heir to the throne of Pride Rock, who must find the king inside of him to assume his rightful place and de-throne his uncle Scar, the lion responsible for the death of Simba’s father Mufasa.

Between the animated Disney movie and the incredibly successful stage production, it’s a story that is well-known by those young and old and cherished by man, including Jones himself, who is dedicating the performance to his sister.

“I watched the movie for about a year straight when I was in high school and my sister was in elementary school. Every day I would get home and my sister would want to watch this movie. Every day. Every single day,” Jones recalled with a laugh. “I connected to the story based on a memory that was important to me and so it’s a passion project for me in a lot of ways and it’s something that’s close to my heart.”

While the tale and the music are familiar to many, Jones said the crowd should expect something a bit different from his junior thespians.

“Exploring and playing is part of this creative process and so we want these actors want to open up and have fun with their roles and build upon the existing characters,” he explained. “Especially when you work with kids who have preconceived notion of how it’s supposed to be. I get told a lot, ‘That’s not how they did it in the movie,’ or ‘That’s not how they did it on Broadway.’ One of the things I’m trying to do is break them of that. I teach them that just because it was done one way with one director doesn’t mean that’s how it always has to be. That’s why people go see different shows – because there’s always a little different vision each time.”

Nine-year-old Brooklyn Moore is one in particular who excitedly leaped into her character, Timon, the wisecracking mongoose who along with his warthog pal Pumba befriend the Simba, played in his younger years by Braedon Donahue while Dominick Seymour plays the grown-up reluctant king.

“He’s a really hilarious character because he’s really funny and has a lot of jokes,” she explained.

The chemistry between Timon and Pumba developed very naturally because 13-year-old Jocelyn Fonseca, playing the warthog, and Moore already have a strong friendship forged through previous projects and camps through J-Art Theater.

“The song ‘Hakuna Matata’ is definitely my favorite part of the show because we sing the part together and it’s fun to sing a song with someone you already know and are really good friends with,” Fonseca said. “We make it really fun and the song is really more like a big party.”

On the other side, 13-year-old Eddie Desarro is looking forward to bringing the gloom and doom while portraying Scar.

“I like his attitude. His general personality makes him fun to play,” he said.

Jones said this play was a new experience for him in the sense that some of the actors playing major roles are children who have never been in that situation before. Desarro, as an example, is a young actor with whom he has never worked.

The wide age range for the actors is both a blessing and a challenge, Jones added.

“We want to be as open and accessible to all ages and what’s challenging about that is a lot of the kindergarteners and first graders have difficulty reading and writing, so there’s a lot more attention spent on making sure they know what to do, what to say,” he said. “I always approach it as a learning process. I’m a teacher first and making sure I’m guiding them as much as I can is crucial.”

Fonseca added that she and other more experienced members of the cast have played a role in helping out the younger actors.

In fact, that teamwork is something Jones encourages.

“I love the community we have here because even though we are all different ages we’re still all kids and we can all relate,” Benjamin Buck, who is playing Mufasa and will be 13 by curtains up, noted. “We’ve all become pretty great friends.”

More than that, though, Jones encourages fun and his cast has received that message loud and clear.

“Tony has a very big personality. I think he brings people out of their shell,” said 12-year-old Edgar Gebhart, the understudy for Mufasa.

Fonseca agreed, “Tony has always been a director full of energy and you could hear his laugh from a mile away. I’ve done summer camps with him and I have gotten to know how he works and I love it because it helps me improve their acting, it helps others improve their acting.”

The cast of The Lion King Jr. will take the stage for four performances – March 2, 6:30 p.m; March 4, 7:30 p.m.; March 5, 2 p.m.; and March 6, 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $5 for children 5 and under, $10 for students and seniors and $12 for adults. There are also patron seats available for $25.

For tickets, visit www.eventbrite.com/e/j-art-youth-presents-the-lion-king-jr-tickets-30921352598.

For more information on the show, visit www.facebook.com/events/371096496597257. To learn more about J-Art Theater, visit www.springfieldjcc.org/adults/artsandculture/jart2.

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