Behind The Complex Puppetry Of 'The Lion King' At The Bushnell

They have found their “place on the path … in the circle of life.”

As children, both Greg Jackson and Bruce Paul Reik enjoyed putting on puppet shows in their backyards. Now they’re both touring with one of the most spectacular puppet shows ever: “The Lion King.”

The lavish Disney musical, based on the company’s 1994 animated film, is at The Bushnell for a 19-day, 23-performance run Aug. 1 through 19.

The musical, directed by Julie Taymor, features songs by Elton John (who himself will be in Hartford in September, performing at the XL Center) and Tim Rice (who did the book and lyrics for “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita”). It charts the rise of a regal young lion named Simba, whose adventures include encounters with hyenas, birds, wildebeests and the fun-loving duo of Timon (a meerkat) and Pumbaa (a warthog).

In separate phone interviews from a “Lion King” tour stop in East Lansing, Mich., earlier this month, Jackson, who plays the hovering hornbill Zazu in the show, and Reik, who is an assistant in the tour’s mask and puppet department, discussed the complexities of life in the show’s grassy, danger-filled Pride Lands.

“I am never onstage,” Reik says. “My job is to take charge of all the masks and puppets in the show, and there are hundreds of them. There are three of us in the puppet department, and we are all veterans of ‘The Lion King.’

“One of our jobs is cluing actors in on how to get familiar with the puppets. There are many variations on how a puppet is realized. Zazu is one of the most traditional in terms of being a hand puppet, but then it has these mechanical bits that make the wings move.

“At the other end of the spectrum is electronics; Scar [the villainous lion who battles the noble Simba for leadership of the pride of lions] has built-in circuitry. His costume has elements that change during the course of the show.

“These are old theater crafts mingling with new technology.”

Jackson, who brings Zazu to life, calls it “a beautiful piece of puppetry. There’s a trigger for the mouth, a trigger for the beak, a trigger for the eyes to open and close. There’s a long neck and flapping wings. It’s great fun to hear the reactions of the audience to Zazu.”

The bird is the adviser to Simba’s father King Mufasa and interacts with numerous other characters in the show, taking part in the songs “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” and “The Madness of King Scar.”

As with the new national tour of “The Phantom of the Opera” which visited the Waterbury Palace last year, “The Lion King” tour has been designed so that it can now visit theaters that were unable to accommodate the grand-scale show before. In the case of The Bushnell, “The Lion King” has played the theater twice before. It has not been scaled down — the tours sets and equipment still fill 18 semi-trucks — and still resembles the Broadway production as closely as possible.

As Jackson puts it, “it’s been retooled in terms of the way the show is packed and brought to different theaters. But for all intents and purposes it’s the Broadway show. If people haven’t seen it in a while, it’s a good time to experience it again.”

“The Lion King” is remarkable in how its audience is responding not just to the actions of the puppets but to the bodies and faces of the actors who are controlling those puppets. The performers are fully visible onstage and wear distinctive make-up and costumes that synch with the puppet designs.

Director Julie Taymor worked early in her career with the Bread and Puppet Theatre in Vermont and studied puppet traditions around the globe before settling on the singular style she used for “The Lion King.”

“Your eye travels back and forth from performer to puppet,” Jackson says. “I’m as responsible for my own performance as I am for the puppet’s. I’m trying to become one with the puppet. It’s a double event — there are a lot of relationships going on.

“This production is unusual. It set a new standard for artistry in musical theater.”

If a puppet has problems during a performance, Reik says, “it can be like working triage. The hope is always that you can fix the puppet and get it back out there. But in some cases we have back-up puppets for emergencies. There’s a lot of wear and tear. Even the static masks can get dents.”

Just as the puppets have a support team, the “Lion King” also brings along a physical therapist to help the live performers.

“This show is especially hard on dancers,” Reik says. “It’s very physical.”

The “Lion King” tour has nearly 50 people in its cast, including “swing” performers and understudies. More than a dozen local “dressers” are hired at each tour stop to assist the performers.

“This is the only touring show I’ve ever known to have a rehearsal period at each stop,” Reik says.

Jackson calls himself “a ‘Lion King’ newbie. “I started with the first rehearsals last August, and we opened in Syracuse in October.”

Jackson comes to “The Lion King” after being involved with a Broadway show that is dear to the hearts of Hartford theatergoers — “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which premiered at Hartford Stage in 2012. Jackson was the stand-by for the show’s star Jefferson Mays, who played the role(s) of the D’Ysquith family in the comically murderous musical. Jackson performed as the D’Ysquiths more than 100 times when Mays suffered an injury.

Jackson will be with the “Lion King” tour for at least another year. “It’s so exciting to be part of a new tour,” he says.

As for Reik, who’s been surrounded by the puppet denizens of Pride Rock for more than a dozen years, “this world is my reality now. But it’s totally great, really cool.”

THE LION KING is at at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford Aug. 1 to 19. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. There is also a 1 p.m. matinee on Aug. 2. There is no 6:30 p.m. show on the closing Aug. 19. Tickets are $23 to $169. 860-987-5900 and

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