Mahadevi Birla World Academy’s Lion King || A Theatre Review

Play: Lion King

Language: English

Directed by: Dana Roy

Duration: 2 hours

It’s not often that one gets to review a musical as iconic as The Lion King. It’s rarer to find it performed by actors in their teens- and younger. And it’s even more impressive when it’s done with as much panache as this production. This year, Mahadevi Birla World Academy and Dana Roy took on this behemoth of a musical. These were the results.

The Acting

“To pull off something like this, the performers must learn empathy, be thoughtful about emotional responses, be organised, disciplined and focused, and of course, have fun!” says Dana Roy, director. “Apart from delving into backgrounds of character, they have to learn physical and vocal techniques.”

Kanika Khetan, who played Mufasa, had an incredible time with the production. “This was one of the best experiences of my entire life”, she says, “The cast and crew of 150 people rehearsed for nearly 5 months, during which we stayed back after school hours to learn the play. We had several auditions, before the final cast was decided. I had to speak in a certain voice which isn’t like mine to suit the character. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve done. “

Rupsha Chatterjee, portraying Scar, agrees. “We did a lot of exercises, which many found funny,” she says, “They included shaking off our fears and rolling down and singing random notes with unfathomable words! They are extremely helpful. They help you to find your centre, heighten your focus and work efficiently.”

The atmosphere created during the play was so perfect that it’s difficult to name just one favourite. I loved Zazu, played by young Urjani Ray, while Scar and the hyenas were much appreciated by many of my friends.

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From left to roght: Simba, Zazu, Nala, Mufasa (in the background). Photograph by Thomas Lai.

The Make-Up and Costume

Make-up can be make-or break when it comes to creating a believable on-stage reality. In this production, the execution was truly flawless.

“The make-up design for Lion King was based on the idea that humans have animalistic spirits and that animals have a human side,” says Tinnat Ahmed Lai, who designed the expressive makeup for the characters. “Each character’s design was different, based on their role in the play.”

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Scar. Photograph by Thomas Lai.

The musical maintained the strong influence of African indigenous culture in every element of the production, including makeup. Traditional African motifs and patterns were used to forge the connection between Mother Earth and the characters’ natural spirits.  Students of the school were roped in to help with the stage makeup.

“Most of the students had no experience with stage makeup,” says Tinnat, “But they learnt very quickly and understood how it is different from usual cosmetic or streetwear. They also understood how it needs to withstand the lighting and last throughout the performance.”

My favourites were the lionesses. The costumes and makeup were absolutely spot-on.

The Lighting

The striking lighting design was done by Thomas Lai.

“Much is dictated by the script and the setting that the director has for the emotion or the locale of the scene,” he says. “We often designate locations and moods by the use of colour. So when we return to that scene you recognise it (because of the lights). Big, happy celebrations are fully bright, of course, to create that uplifting mood .”

This was notable in multiple scenes. Red lights and floor lights signified the hyenas’ territory. Bright yellow lights signified Timon and Pumba’s happy home. I particularly loved the scene with the hyenas hunting in a pack. White flashes of light in a completely dark auditorium showed the intensity of the situation. There was also an incredible transition from dawn to night with the help of the lights during “Grasslands Chant”.

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Rafiki. Photograph by Thomas Lai.

The Choreography

The musical features an enormous cast of ensemble charactersall of whom had to be proficient in dancing. Some of the moves were comparatively easier. The elephants, giraffes and birds had a whale of a time (haha, get it? Get it? … Sorry.) Others, not so much.

“We had different inspirations for the hyenas and the lionesses,” says Dana. “For the hyenas, we had a very specific base stance we found in early workshops: on toes, knees bent, bum down, inspired by the physical look of actual hyenas. “

Namya Bose, who played Shenzi, recounts the months of practice required to perfect the moves. “We were the bad guys, which was very interesting to play!” she says. “Our choreography was so much fun to learn, but it took a long time, since we had to sing as well as dance. But it was an amazing experience and I absolutely loved it.” 

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Nala. Photograph by Thomas Lai.

And last but certainly not least, especially for this show:

The Music

Putting up an incredible production requires a lot of work, and these students certainly put in the effort. Their mentors were not far behind.

“As a music director, I didn’t just want to copy and paste exact arrangements from the version on Broadway,” explains Subhagata Singha aka Rivu. “It seemed much more fun to take a dive into the roots and, if not for anything else but to understand the music better, learn a thing or two about actual music from Africa.”

“We had a score and we taught from that,” says Shireen Ghosh, vocal trainer. “But it’s written for a choir with both male and female voices. We only had female voices, so we had to work out how to split and modify the parts.”

There were other challenges too. “The choir is supposed to be in eight parts,” says Shireen, “But with no male voices available, we managed seven at the most.” That’s more than impressive with an all-female choir.

 

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The Ensemble. Photograph by Rajatabha Ray.

 

 

“A lot of the backing parts are in Zulu and Swahili,” says Shireen. “Which was really cool to figure out and teach.”

African a capella music was the first thing to get into,” Rivu says.”Mbube and Isicathamiya were the styles that came up. Funnily enough, both styles depend on having male voices – and everybody in our cast is female. Challenge accepted!”

But technicality makes a good singer, not a great one. How did they go about bringing the emotional depth required in the musical?

“There was a moment that happened during rehearsal one day,” recalld Rivu. “We were singing Shadowland in a small classroom. Everybody was singing technically correctly and all was well. But that extra something was missing. We took a moment and had a chat about Aleppo and what it means to have your home taken away from you. We then moved on to the partition, stories we’ve all heard about as people in West Bengal. Then we went back to singing Shadowland and every member of the choir and cast suddenly realized what their responsibility is, not just as singers, but as storytellers. That was the first day Shadowland sounded as it ought to. I still have goosebumps from that day.”

The choir was an instant hit with the entire audience, many of whom sang along to the songs (yours truly sang Hakuna Matata with great gusto, embarrassing everyone around her).

“It must be really difficult to get young students to sing in sync and harmonise together that well, and they pulled that off amazingly”, said Poulomi Bhattacharya, member of the audience. “I think those collective African chants just made the atmosphere perfect, and the solo voices, especially the girl who played Rafiki (Abantika Bagchi), were fantastic too!”

The Chief Guest’s Comment

The students and their mentors clearly pulled out all stops to make the production a success, and this was reflected in the reception. Choreographer and dancer Alokananda Roy was the Chief Guest at the event. She was full of praise at how well-executed it had been.

“It was an outstanding production,” she said. “The students sang so well, especially the young child who played Young Simba! The performers were accomplished actors and the presentation was great. Hats off to Katy and her team, who always do  always do an outstanding job! This is how a school production should be.”

She stressed the importance of school support in such productions. “I was very fortunate to be a student of Modern High School, where I learned so much about the presentation and execution of all the elements of a theatre production,” she said, “This is how beginners learn. And they can do it without having to worry about costs and other travails. It allows one to walk freely with no constraints. It is not possible to do this without the infrastructure provided by the school. Mahadevi Birla World Academy has done a brilliant job! I am floored by the spectacular display.”

 

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Alokananda Roy (third from left). Photograph by Rajatabha Ray. 

 

The Director’s Sign-off

“We have been doing musicals in schools since 2002, so our main focus is to give children an experience with theatre they may not normally have,” says Dana. “It’s a growing experience for everyone. The children see this change in themselves and respond in wonderfully positive ways.”

Rupsha agrees. “Being in class 12, with my boards coming up, I even studied during rehearsals,” she says. “But this play taught me a lot and  helped me to grow as a person. It helped me in my studies and increased my focus.”

There are a lot of challenges to be overcome. Extraordinary discipline and organizational skills are required for such an effort, along with that elusive enigma: parents’ permission.

“Initially, when we began four months ago, there was a lot of resistance to staying back after school for rehearsals,” Dana recalls, “This started changing dramatically the further along the rehearsals we went. The icing on the cake was how much the parents really appreciated the show, including initial sceptics. It seems to have changed a lot of minds about the value of theatre and the arts in their children’s growth.”

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Taking a bow. Photograph by Rajatabha Ray. 

The Verdict

Mahadevi Birla World Academy’s presentation of the musical, adapted as Lion King,  was beautifully done. It brought back the nostalgia of being back at school and toiling for months over the props and sets, which, as a student of Art, was only part I was involved with.

The play was well-acted; the young actors managed to get the physicality of their characters amazingly well. The choir was beautiful and brought down the house. The costumes, props and makeup was incredibly well-executed- audience members noticed how sophisticated the overall presentation was. It was polished, it was well put-together, it was well-presented.

It was everything the very best productions should be ❤️


I have to thank many people for their cooperation while I compiled this post. It could not have been done without their help.

Thanks to Shireen Ghosh for asking me to write this piece, to Dana, Thomas and Tinnat for being so patient with my very clumsy interviewing skills and to all the students who spoke to me in the midst of studies. A huge thank-you is reserved for Anjana Saha, the Principal of Mahadevi Birla World Academy, for coordinating my efforts to secure the very best photographs I possibly could for you. I must thank Rajatabha Ray, the official photographer, and Thomas Lai, the unofficial chronicler, for the lovely images.

Above all, thanks to all the students who put up this amazing production for us to enjoy.


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