Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Simba ran with rugby pack

Nick Afoa.

Kiwi cum lion: Nick Afoa. Photo: Steven Siewert

Like Simba, the young lion cub in the new Australian production of The Lion King, Nick Afoa knows what it is like to spend time in the wilderness.

Afoa wanted to be an All Black before injury wiped out a promising rugby career and inadvertently placed him on the stage. ''I was in Singapore playing in the sevens tournament,'' he says.

''I went to sidestep an opponent and I planted wrong. My knee just went from under me. It was my dream to be an All Black. People had spoke it, that I could do it, and I believed it fully. I tried rehab but it didn't work. It was really hard, it was like experiencing grief. My wilderness was my dream gone. I didn't commit any crime or do drugs but I partied to dampen my grief.''

The irony was that Auckland-raised Afoa had in 2003 turned down a third audition call for the Australian premiere of The Lion King to trial for a New Zealand representative team. He did not make the squad and he could not get back into the auditions. It only worsened his sense of despair.

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When the call came for the musical's return season at Sydney's Capitol Theatre in December it seemed to Afoa ''like a second chance''.

For the first day of rehearsals of The Lion King on Wednesday, Afoa had trimmed 10 to 15 kilograms from his bulky rugby frame. ''Rugby is about being heavy footed. I've had to learn to point my toe.''

The producers of The Lion King have gone for a mix of rookies and seasoned performers in their musical retelling of a lion cub who learns what it takes to rule his father's kingdom.

Afoa will step out with Buyi Zama, who plays Rafiki, the wise mandrill, in the role she created in Sydney 10 years ago and for which she received a Mo Award in 2004 for best female music theatre performer. Coming back to Sydney after touring the show in Shanghai, Las Vegas and South Africa is ''weird and wonderful at the same time … because I feel like I've returned home,'' Zama says.

The NSW government will not say how much it paid to outdo a rival bid by Melbourne to bring the highest grossing Broadway show in New York history to Sydney. But Arts Minister George Souris estimates that during its eight-month run from December the stage musical will play to 470,000 people, and contribute $100 million to the state economy, including $28 million from interstate and international visitors.

The Lion King's executive producer, James Thane, attributes the show's longevity to the universal nature of the tale of a boy who becomes a man, and the show's fusion of popular music and distinctive African rhythms and sounds.

Zama is impressed by the cast's new energy and feels Sydney has changed "for the better". Her part meant, "I'm home even when I'm away from home ... hey, I'm in African all the time."

When The Lion King opens in December, it will be one of 10 productions running concurrently in the world. As well as Sydney, The Lion King can be seen on Broadway, Tokyo, Hamburg, Madrid and in London's West End.

Props for the new musical production were shipped in 20 containers from all parts of the world. Pride rock was made in upstate New York; the puppets and masks from Canada. Some of the sets were built in Adelaide, and many of the costumes are being created in two Sydney workshops.


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