Starweek Magazine

Pinoy artists 'roar' on stage

- Alexa Villano -

Manila, Philippines - Filipino artists are lighting up the international stage once again, with seven Filipinos drawing raves for their performances in the current production of “The Lion King” at the Marina Sands in Singapore.

Artists from ten countries make up the international cast; seven of them are Filipinos, including six children alternating in the roles of the young Simba and Nala. Leon Matawaran, Lance Reblando and Warren David Saga alternate in the role of the young Simba while Nikki Samonte, Cristina de Leon and Myka Torre take on the role of the young Nala.

Lance and Nikki told STARweek that playing the roles of the young Nala and Simba is an honor.

“We’re so happy and honored. After all, we are Filipinos,” says Lance in Filipino.

“Happy and having so much fun,” adds Nikki.

Theater actress and former Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company member Yael Pineda alternates in the roles of Rafiki and Shenzi, one of the hyenas.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF Base Entertainment And Disney

Being the only Filipino adult around is a responsibility Pineda takes seriously. Even with the parents around, she takes care of the children during rehearsals and performances.

“We are like family. The Pinoy kids are amazing artists and we’re so proud of them, they’re full of fun and we cook or swim together on our day off, which is on Mondays. It’s just great that my Lion King family is growing. Bonding is strong – they even call me Mama,” says the mother of three.

Being part of the Singaporean production is nothing new for Pineda, since she has been part of the production since 2003 when it opened in Sydney. She also toured with the cast in Melbourne (2005-2006), Shanghai (2006) and London (2008-2010). She also took part in the Festival of The Lion King in Hong Kong Disneyland from 2007 to 2008.

“All Lion King productions around the world are different even if we practically do the same show. It’s the ‘feel’ and the voices that make it different. Of course each actor will have his or her own touch in interpreting a character on stage. For me as an artist, I learn a lot from. Of course, there are certain things we need to do to stick to its standards and to keep the show fresh,” Pineda tells STARweek via email.

Mufasa confronts Scar in the Singapore production

Based on the Walt Disney movie, The Lion King tells the story of Simba, the heir of Pride Rock. When his father Mufasa dies trying to save him from a stampede, he blames himself for his father’s death and runs away. Initially reluctant to go back and face the past, he soon regains his confidence and goes back with his friends to face Scar and the hyenas and reclaim his right as king and part of the circle of life.

Originally directed by Julie Taymor with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, the Singaporean production opened last March 10 at the Marina Sands Bay Theater. The Lion King has won various awards such as the Tony for best direction of a musical and best costume in 1998. It also received three Moliere awards as well as the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Drama League awards for Taymor’s direction and costumes.

For Michael Eckel, resident director of the Singaporean production, bringing to life The Lion King is a big responsibility as he makes sure to stick to Taymor’s concept.

“It is an honor and a challenge to lead the unique vision of Julie Taymor in the Singapore production. Having such fantastic material in your hands is an incredible responsibility. I stay awake figuring ways to bring out the best in this production!” says Eckel.

Knowing the challenges of theater, Eckel is happy that the audience appreciates what they see on stage.

“With each show being a live performance, slight differences are expected every day. That is what makes live theater so thrilling and keeps it alive. There are bits of freedom for our actors in the performance frame, but in the end, it will still be the show our audience wants to see,” he adds.

Jean-Luc Guizonne as Mufasa in the Paris production

Pineda echoes Eckel’s sentiments.

“Performing for The Lion King is more of how to keep giving our very best, the heart and soul of the story each time we step on that stage, knowing that we will touch people’s lives in so many ways. But each day is a different show so as much as possible, we just sing and dance our hearts out. That is what I love about The Lion King,” she explains.

One of the highlights of the play is the use of puppets and Eckel says the actors are challenged all the way.

“Our performers are not only actors, they are also puppeteers. On stage they are not only looking through their own eyes, but are also looking through the eyes of their puppet. The connection between human and animal challenges our performers every day. The performer is only as good as he brings his puppet alive. The more connection between the two of them, the better. The rehearsal process for new performers takes about 6 to 8 weeks of hard training until they are ready to take the stage. But at the end it’s worth it, and it makes this show as special and unique as it is,” he says.

As for the cast, Eckel has nothing but praises for them, especially the Filipino actors.

“The singers from the Philippines are blessed with the most beautiful voices. Our kids are all great singers and actors who bring an incredible amount of discipline and commitment to their job. We are very lucky to have found such talent,” he says.

The author with Ivy Negre who played young Nala in the Australian production, and Lance Reblando, Nikki Samonte and Yael from the Singapore production.

“A show like The Lion King needs only the best people to make the magic happen. There is a lot of thought behind every single detail in this show and it needs the best people to fill it with life. It is a big challenge to play the show for every musician. The right feeling for this special kind of music and the commitment to the African spirit needs special talent and that is what our musicians are filled with,” Eckel adds.

Reviews of the play have been very positive, drawing large audiences for all performances. And with the Singapore production still ongoing until next year, Pineda says there are no concrete plans on where they are heading after the run.

“I’m sure everyone has their own things to do when we finish but for now, since we just opened, we just keep on roaring high here in Singapore,” she says.

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