MANILA - The stage adaptation of "The Lion King," like the animated classic by Disney, follows the cub Simba as he grows up to become the leader of the wild like his wise father, Mufasa.
The Broadway production, billed as the world's number one show with over $8 billion in gross revenue since 1997, is expanding its audience yet again with an international tour kicking off in Manila.
In this leg of the tour, which runs from March 18 to May 6 at The Theatre at Solaire, six Filipino kids will join the company as the childhood friends Simba and Nala. The addition brings the total of nationalities involved in this production to 18.
Sharing the role of young Simba are Gabriel Tiongson, 12; Julien Joshua Dolor, Jr., 11; and Omar Uddin, 9. Alternating as young Nala, meanwhile, are Felicity Napuli, 11; Uma Martin, 8; and Sheena Bentoy, 8.
Of the six, Bentoy and Dolor are theater newcomers. Napuli and Martin both starred in productions of "Matilda" and "A Little Princess." Tiongson was also in "Matilda," as well as a local staging of "Scrooge." Uddin's experience, meanwhile, includes "Tagu-taguan, Nasaan ang Buwan" and "A Christmas Carol."
The children will spend the most time on stage with South Africa-born Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, as Simba's father Mufasa. Coming into Manila, Khanyile already had an idea of the "incredible talent" of Filipinos in singing.
"That's one thing I was excited about," Khanyile told ABS-CBN News on the sidelines of rehearsals for "The Lion King" at Star Theater in Pasay. "I've seen Filipino kids on YouTube, singing, and I was, like, 'Neat, I can't wait to see and hear them!' When they sang 'I Can't Wait to be King,' I was sitting, 'Oh my god!'"
A pivotal and emotional scene, both in the Disney animation and stage production, is Simba witnessing Mufasa's death during a stampede of wildebeests.
"I am never disappointed," Khanyile said, referring to the Filipino cast members. "They always bring something new. We would do a scene repeatedly on multiple days for the rehearsals, but they will bring more each time, they will do so much more, they will go deeper. They cry, and they're good actors! They're seasoned actors in themselves."
British actor Antony Lawrence, who will play the villainous Scar, echoed this sentiment. Lawrence was beside Khanyile, and Rafiki actress Ntsepa Pitjeng, during the interview.
As Simba's uncle, Lawrence will also share the stage numerous times with the chidren. He shared how, during rehearsals, the characters' interaction dynamically change in tone depending on the young ones' performances.
Lawrence explained: "When we're doing one scene, one actor does something different, and that affects how I'm going to say my next line. He'll say something to me a certain way, and I go, 'Maybe I'll do it this way today.' And then, the next kid in, it's completely different, and that changes me."
"That's fun, that's exciting, it keeps it different each. You'll have to come watch the show three times just to see the different combinations," he added.
The production's associate director, Anthony Lyn, is no stranger to Filipino talent. As resident director of "Miss Saigon" nearly two decades ago, he would go on casting trips to Manila.
"It was obvious to us then the great wealth of talent there is here. With the international tour beginning here, it's kind of a no-brainer that we would use Simbas and Nalas from here," Lyn told ABS-CBN News.
"We really have been bowled over when we came here for the auditions, by just how talented the children are here, how confident, and also how advanced they seem in various aspects: the singing, the dancing, and the acting. It adds the culture of the place that we're in as well to the company. That's a great thing for everyone, and not just the kids," he said.
For tickets to "The Lion King," visit TicketWorld.com.ph.