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What's behind those wild 'Lion King' masks?

Mike Dunham
Tony Freeman handles the puppet Zazu, the high strung and easily flustered hornbill bird in "The Lion King." Freeman also understudies for "Scar."
Photos courtesy WestCoast Entertainment
Timothy Carter plays "Scar" in the Lion King.
Photos courtesy WestCoast Entertainment
Marja Harmon as Nala in The Lion King.
Photo courtesy WestCoast Entertainment
Phindile Mkhize plays Rafifi in The Lion King.
Photo courtesy WestCoast Entertainment
The Lionesses in the haunting "Shadowland" from "The Lion King" national tour.
JOAN MARCUS / Disney

Tony Freeman remembers when the first casting call went out for Disney's "The Lion King." Starving actors who typically aren't too proud to try out for any paying part, no matter how degrading, were leery.

"We all thought: This is a cartoon movie about animals going on the live stage. All we could imagine was that they'd put us in lion suits like the cowardly lion in 'Wizard of Oz,' " he said. "It was like: Ooh, I'm not sure I want to be in that one.

"That changed as soon as we saw the designs for the costumes. It was just so beautiful and so creative. All of a sudden everyone wanted to be part of the show."

Those extravagant and eye-popping costumes are widely credited for making "Lion King," which opened in Anchorage on Wednesday for a six-week run, a spectacular hit on Broadway. They fuse human acting with mechanical masks and body parts devised to suggest animals and convey character.

Technically they're puppets, though not the typical ventriloquist dummy.

"Normally the puppeteer is out of sight," said Freeman. "But in 'Lion King' we're acting too. I'm singing, dancing, acting and manipulating the puppet all at the same time, in full view of the audience."

For most of the past nine years, Freeman has played the part of Zazu, the high strung and easily-flustered hornbill bird who is major domo to the court of Mufasa, king of the lions, and his successors. He'll be reprising the role here in Anchorage.

Contacted last month in Calgary, Alberta, the city where the show played just before coming to Atwood Hall, he estimated that he had some 2,000 performances of the odd bird under his belt. But he's also the understudy for Scar, the evil brother of Mufasa, having done that role some 37 times.

The Zazu puppet is considered to be "the most difficult puppet in the show," he said.

"It's not the weight, it's the manipulation," Freeman said. Zazu must be held aloft most of the time.

Freeman compared it with painting a ceiling. "At first you say, 'This is easy.' Ten minutes later you're arms are aching and you're saying 'Kill me now.' It puts your body in a position that your muscles are not designed to hold weight in, putting strain on your shoulders, forearms, back. It takes getting used to."

The performer has a number of variables to try to keep under control. A left hand lever flaps the wings. Freeman right arm manipulates Zazu's head on a slinky neck with his wrist, the eyelids with his thumb and uses his forefinger to make Zazu's beak move in snyc with his words.

"I'm 50 years old, so this is a workout for me. Every time I go into this show I lose weight. I call it my 'Lion King Diet.' "

Freeman said he usually shows up at the theater two hours before curtain to stretch and exercise before starting the grueling role. It takes 35 minutes to get made up and another 10 to get fitted into the costume, wig and microphone, and you can't do it alone.

"It's the only show I can remember doing where I can't get into costume by myself. It's so elaborate," Freeman said. "And needing someone's help to get dressed is sort of embarrassing."

"Every city we go to they hire local dressers to help us," he added. About half of the dressers travel with the troupe and the rest are temps from the vicinity of the show, he said. The same is true for the orchestra.

At least Zazu is relatively light. "Scar is difficult because the puppet weight 45 pounds and you have to make it look graceful," Freeman said.

When people look at the show's lions, they assume the masks must be carved of wood, but actually that part weighs a mere 9 ounces. "It's made out of carbon graphite or something," said Freeman. "It's the mechanism that makes the mask move that's heavy."

The machinery in the lion puppets keep the mask poised above the performer when their human side is expressed, but lowers to a position in front of the player when more visceral emotions come out.

"To the audience's eye, the actor does it with his body, the force of the motion pushing the mask down," said Freeman. "But actually the mask is on a boom and there are wires running down your back to a battery that powers the boom. Another wire runs down your arms to a trigger in your hand that activates the machine."

Such complexity doesn't come cheap. Freeman said he's heard that a Scar costume costs $40,000 or so. "And our understudies aren't allowed to wear our costumes. We each have at least two understudies and each of our costumes has to travel around with us, even though the understudy may never go on."

Then there's the matter of never knowing which costume you may need to don on for any given night.

The actor must be ready to shift his or her persona -- say, from the flibberty-gibbet bird to the sinister, smooth and deadly serious Iago-like character of Scar.

"There've been times I've been told I'd have to switch from the whacky, silly bird to the evil lion half an hour before curtain," said Freeman. But that keeps you on your toes and makes it fun."

Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham orcall 257-4332.

'LION KING’ FACTS

• There are more than 200 puppets in the show, including 12 bird kites, representing 25 different kinds of creatures.

• The tallest animals are the giraffes, 18 feet tall.

• The elephant is 13 feet long and 9 feet wide.

• There are 39 hyenas and 52 wildebeests in the show.

• The Timon puppet weighs 15 pounds.

THE LION KING will be presented at 1 and

6:30 p.m. Sundays;

7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday;

8 p.m. Friday and

2 and 8 p.m. Saturday through Oct. 11 in Atwood Concert Hall. An additional show at 2 p.m. on Oct. 8 and no 6 p.m. show on Oct. 11. Tickets $39.50-$94.50, general admission; $29.50-$92 for youth and seniors, available at centertix.net or by calling 263-2787.

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By MIKE DUNHAM
mdunham@adn.com
Contact Mike Dunham at or on