Oshie Broussard portrays Rafiki during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Oshie Broussard portrays Rafiki during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

‘Iconic’ characters roar to life

In ‘The Lion King,’ a familiar story sets the stage for local actors to seek new challenges

This weekend and next, the Kenai Performers will hit the stage as an array of wildlife from the African savanna — adapting a Disney classic in “The Lion King Jr.”

Director Terri Zopf-Schoessler said “iconic” is the word for it — “The Lion King” is something that everyone has grown up with and that everyone has a connection to. It’s familiar — but given life on the stage with a cast made up exclusively of young talent.

Stepping into the unknown

Though the story and the characters are familiar, for many of the actors “The Lion King” represents a step into the unfamiliar. Experienced actors are stepping into roles unlike those they’ve played in the past. Uriah Smith, who’s in a leading role as Young Simba, has never before taken the stage.

Two major roles, Simba and Nala, are split, with the Young Simba played by Smith and Simba played by Jackson Hooper. Similarly, Young Nala is portrayed by both Sariah Henderson and Morgan Hooper, Nala by JLee Webster.

Passing off the role, Henderson said, was sometimes exciting — a chance to take a break and step back — but sometimes bittersweet as she sees the character continue on without her.

“Nala is actually the first female role I’ve played,” Webster said Tuesday. “Ever.”

She’s made several appearances in other local productions, but Webster said she’s often filling a more comedic space. In Nala, Webster said she’s found the opportunity both to show off a vocal range that she hasn’t previously while playing men — but also a deeper emotional complexity.

She’s given a standout moment in her own song called “Shadowland.”

“This is a good showcase of my skill, and it’s really refreshing to play something that’s outside of that comedic relief character,” she said.

Heroes and villains

Nala has to rise up as a leader for her people in the second act — standing up to the villainous Scar, portrayed by Josiah Burton. That antagonistic dynamic portrayed onstage by Webster and Burton was also new.

“Josiah and I have never played this type of thing,” Webster said.

Burton is coming off of a year of performing as leads in local productions of “Something Rotten!,” “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” and “Disaster!” He said he’s played villains before, but no one like Scar.

“I love playing a Disney villain,” Burton said.

Scar is an opportunity to be overly dramatic, to sit onstage and scowl and to be annoyed with everyone, Burton said. He has perhaps too much fun working with the opportunities provided to him by his costume — designed by Jen Brighton and a costume team that included Jodene McAuliffe, Karen Otter, Terri Burdick and Hannah Kniceley. Scar’s look is complete with outrageously long nails and an even longer tail.

Opposing Scar is, of course, Simba. Smith found himself in the role because he liked “The Lion King,” and because he had been interested in trying out acting — he’s diving into the deep end.

He said he was nervous initially about learning the lines and singing the songs — but that he got through it. Now, he’s ready for people to finally see the show.

Smith passes off the role of Simba to Jackson Hooper during the show’s second act. Hooper said that his Simba is the hero — but that he has some big flaws. He said that while Simba ends the show as a commanding king, he has to overcome his own self-importance first and reclaim his shirked responsibilities.

Hooper said he and Smith spent a lot of time together making sure their two Simbas overlapped. He said he wished he had gotten the opportunity to play Simba when he was younger to see both sides — “get a sense of where he’s starting out.” He said he’s never had to share a character like that before.

The music, especially some of the songs sung in Swahili or Zulu, stood out for Hooper.

Getting creative

Handling some of those challenging lyrics is Oshie Broussard, who portrays Rafiki. Broussard said she usually plays villains — that Rafiki is a big change as a spiritual guru with a lot of room to bring out the humor.

“The Lion King,” Broussard said, was her favorite movie growing up — still her favorite Disney animated feature. And the scene where Rafiki hits Simba with a stick inspired her to pursue the role.

Taking that beloved story and “putting our own little twist on it” was creatively engaging for Broussard. The show that will debut this weekend features dazzling colors, stunning vocals and advanced choreography. She said that the skills being shown off by the cast are going to surprise folks who think the “Jr.” means it’s for kids.

New to working with the Kenai Performers is Kate Cox, who’s playing Zazu. She said she was having fun finding the character, something that came easier when she was attired in feathers and a glittery blazer. Similarly to Broussard, she said that playing a familiar character gives more room for different actors to find a new side to it.

Not every actor is taking that step out of their comfort zone — others are relishing the opportunity to refine their skills in a more familiar setting. Gavin Hunt, who’s playing Mufasa, said it’s his second time in the role — a role he first inhabited for a Kenai Middle School film production of the same musical during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hunt said this production was a chance to return to that performance and tweak it — also to finally bring that “big booming voice” in front of a live audience.

“I love this character,” he said.

In the roles of the comedic duo Timon and Pumbaa are Cora Frazier and Gage Sturman.

Frazier said playing “the funny characters” is what appeals to her — she wants to be the character that makes people happy. She said Timon is a fun twist on that dynamic because he thinks he’s funny, but none of the other characters do.

Sturman said that Pumbaa was the only character in the show he was interested in being — he’s realized onstage in what he described as “a hamster ball” that translates the character’s size.

“I just love his personality, and the costume that I have is incredible,” he said.

Sturman said he’s excited by the technical production of the show — drummers perform live on stage, a projection behind the actors captures the different locations, actors run through the aisles, and the group gets pretty clever with lighting.

A human story, told through animals

“The Lion King” is a story about animals, about lions, hyenas and even a warthog. But Burton said that in the stage production they don’t — and shouldn’t — try to appear as animals. He said their stylistic costumes — which evoke the imagery of the animals but leave their humanity very much intact — allow for stronger emotions and a stronger connection with the audience.

Being in any production, Webster said, is about the journey more than the destination — the eight performances scheduled across this weekend and next will be over in a flash. But they represent two months of production, “two months of memories and two months of friendships and bonds.”

Webster said that putting on “The Lion King” with the Kenai Performers had shown her just how many talented youth are out in the community. She said she hoped that being back in the Kenai Central High School auditorium’s larger stage would serve to get more folks interested.

“There’s going to be that exposure that we need to get more people in and I’m so excited,” she said.

“The Lion King Jr.” will run Friday, Saturday and Sunday this weekend — June 16-18 — and next weekend — June 23-25. Shows will run Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $16 after a Kenai Peninsula Borough School District ticketing fee, and can be purchased online at kenaiperformers.org.

For more information about the Kenai Performers, visit facebook.com/kenaiperformers.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

Kate Cox portrays Zazu and Uriah Smith portrays Simba during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Kate Cox portrays Zazu and Uriah Smith portrays Simba during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Uriah Smith portrays Simba and Sariah Henderson portrays Nala during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Uriah Smith portrays Simba and Sariah Henderson portrays Nala during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Catherine Prisk portrays Shenzi, Uriah Smith portrays Simba and McKinley Frary portrays Banzai during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Catherine Prisk portrays Shenzi, Uriah Smith portrays Simba and McKinley Frary portrays Banzai during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Josiah Burton portrays Scar during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Josiah Burton portrays Scar during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Uriah Smith portrays Simba and Gavin Hunt portrays Mufasa during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Uriah Smith portrays Simba and Gavin Hunt portrays Mufasa during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Josiah Burton portrays Scar and Gavin Hunt portrays Mufasa during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Josiah Burton portrays Scar and Gavin Hunt portrays Mufasa during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Cora Frazier portrays Timon during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Cora Frazier portrays Timon during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Gage Sturman portrays Pumbaa during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Gage Sturman portrays Pumbaa during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Jackson Hooper portrays Simba during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Jackson Hooper portrays Simba during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Cora Frazier portrays Timon, Gage Sturman portrays Pumbaa, and Jackson Hooper portrays Simba during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Cora Frazier portrays Timon, Gage Sturman portrays Pumbaa, and Jackson Hooper portrays Simba during a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

JLee Webster portrays Nala in a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

JLee Webster portrays Nala in a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

JLee Webster portrays Nala in a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

JLee Webster portrays Nala in a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

JLee Webster portrays Nala in a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

JLee Webster portrays Nala in a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

JLee Webster portrays Nala in a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
JLee Webster portrays Nala in a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

JLee Webster portrays Nala in a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion) JLee Webster portrays Nala in a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Gavin Hunt portrays Mufasa, Oshie Broussard portrays Rafiki and Charli Byrd portrays Sarabi during a rehearsal of "The Lion King Jr." in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

JLee Webster portrays Nala in a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion) JLee Webster portrays Nala in a rehearsal of “The Lion King Jr.” in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

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