The ‘Lion King’ stops at the Memphis Orpheum with a local boy as young Simba

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“You have to be a lion,” the actor said. “There are certain movements and ways of walking, just to be a lion.”

Who is speaking? A veteran actor of the method, versed in Stanislavsky’s performance theories?

“You have to have fun,” added the actor. “This is the main objective.”

Amusing. OK, now Jaylen Lyndon Hunter, a touring production star of “Disney’s The Lion King,” looks more like what he is: a little one. Uh, make one child. Or, more precisely, a Memphis child.

Jaylen Lyndon Hunter of Memphis is young Simba in a touring production of

Jaylen, 11, stars as young Simba – the orphaned lion cub who grows up to be the title of King of the Pride Lands – in the show, which takes place in Memphis on November 11 for a 15-day race to the ‘Orpheum.

The role and commitment it requires – this current tour will take “The Lion King” to another dozen cities through July – represents a huge leap into the world of professional theater for a sixth-year student in the Evangelical Christian school whose previous acting experience was more or less confined to plays at its elementary school, Idlewild, and its performance arts camp, the Young Actors Guild.

“I wanted to be an actor because I’ve seen funny movies, horror movies, and emotional movies,” Jaylen said. “I love all actors,” he said, citing Adam Sandler and the late Chadwick Boseman as special heroes.

“I think it’s amazing for any kid to take a stage like that in front of thousands of people every night,” said Gerald Ramsey, who as Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones in the long Disney original animated footage), works as Jaylen’s Father on stage. “It’s something I could never have done at this age.”

However, not being afraid of a public stage is a tradition in Jaylen’s family: his mother is Crystelle Jones, who worked in youth services for the city of Memphis, while her father is the former player. professional basketball player Jimmie “Snap” Hunter, an outstanding at Trezevant High School and the University of Memphis. In fact, Jaylen was born in Spain, when his father played for the Granada basketball team. He was about 5 years old when he first saw “The Lion King” on television at his home in Memphis (actually Cordoba).

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“The Lion King”: from screen to stage

As almost everyone is probably aware, “The Lion King” first came to life as an animated musical feature, released in 1994.

A highlight of the so-called “Disney Renaissance” which made the company’s animated films to critical and commercial success (other “Renaissance” films include “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” ), “The Lion King” was the biggest box office hit of 1994 and, at the time, the highest-grossing animated film of all time. It has since been overtaken by several computer animated films, including the current # 1: the 2019 remake of “The Lion King”.

Gerald Ramsey is Royal Mufasa in the touring production of "The Lion King."

The success of the first film inspired an innovative and highly stylized theatrical adaptation that opened on Broadway in 1997 and has never been closed. Over 9,300 performances later, it’s the highest grossing show in Broadway history. Critics and peers loved it as much as audiences: “The Lion King” won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Meanwhile, the show’s satellite productions tour around the world. “The Lion King” is so popular that it will be in Memphis three times longer than most plays booked for the Orpheum’s current “Broadway” season, which runs through July and includes titles such as “Mean Girls “,” Cats “,” Tootsie “and” Jesus Christ Superstar “. (The exception is the mega-hit “Hamilton”, which will be in the Orpheum from December 21 to January 2.)

“A show as great as this doesn’t end,” Ramsey said. “So when the cast members leave, new ones come in. They have to jump on a moving train.”

Raised in American Samoa, Ramsey said he has been on tour with “The Lion King” for five years, “but there are people on the show who have been here for 15 years or more.”

For the current “North American Tour” of “The Lion King,” the role of young Simba alternates – due to the rules regarding underage actors – between Jaylen and 12-year-old Charlie Kahler from Delaware. Another complication for young actors is school. Jaylen is on the road with not only his mother but also a guardian. In addition, he remains enrolled in ECS, and takes courses and receives homework, via Zoom, just like all his classmates who are not on the road with “The Lion King”. (According to his mother, Jaylen is an “straight A-plus” student.)

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Slender on the veldt: The lionesses dance in "The Lion King."

COVID-19 is also affecting production. Due to pandemic protocols, the actors do not hang around off the stage, as one would expect. But Ramsey said that lack of daily contact hasn’t inhibited his relationship with his stage son, Jaylen. On the contrary, it made their interaction on stage more intense. “We are able to find a good balance between the fun and our little moments behind the scenes and then with our more serious moments on stage,” he said.

A hometown show in Memphis

Jaylen caught Disney’s attention after his mother sent an audition tape for the role of Simba to the producers of the “The Lion King” show. After Jaylen won the role, he and the rest of the cast rehearsed for six weeks in Cleveland, where the current tour kicked off in early October.

Jaylen credits his Young Actors Guild mentor, Chrysti Chandler, for teaching him how to play, sing and dance well enough to become Simba, a “smooth-moving” cat who is “a little cocky at times and a little proud.”

He said Simba has always been his favorite character in “The Lion King”, and the role is especially exciting on stage because “I interact with the ostriches and giraffes, and they’re just colorful and fun and creative.” (Of course, these “ostriches” and “giraffes” are performed by dancers, operating from elaborate stylized outfits that are both costumes and puppets.)

Jaylen Lyndon Hunter strikes a more serious pose than you might expect for a kid currently acting alongside Timon and Pumbaa in "The Lion King."

“It’s going to be cool to be in Memphis,” said Jaylen, who said he looked forward to seeing members of his different families – his church family, his school classmates and YAG, his extended family – in the audience.

Ramsey said seeing Jaylen’s friends would be “cool” for him, too.

“It is such an honor to go to someone’s hometown, especially a young Simba,” he said. He then started to become a philosopher, as one might expect from someone who has been on tour for five years in a show on the “Circle of Life”.

Ramsey said: “This show is in South Africa, and they’ve chased a young man from Memphis and an old man, myself, from the South Pacific, and we can perform in front of an audience from coast to coast. other. And it’s magic that people everywhere can relate to the story. It’s a special honor that we have to bring this to Jaylen’s hometown. “

Spencer Plachy is Scar in a touring production of

“Disney’s Lion King”

November 11-28, The Orpheum, 203 S. Main.

Tickets: $ 30 to $ 115.

Visit orpheum-memphis.com.


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