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An inside look at ‘The Lion King’ set at Wharton Center


The highest grossing and third longest running Broadway tour in the world, “The Lion King,” brings the saga of the Serengeti to East Lansing’s Wharton Center for 23 performances, July 11 through 29.

As the 17 trucks unload critical set pieces like Pride Rock and the elephant graveyard, head carpenter Matthew McKim is directing prop traffic and overseeing the set’s construction.

The most difficult part about load-in, said McKim, is finding the space. “We need 2,000 square feet of space that has nothing to do with the performance itself. Finding that space in theaters can be challenging,” said McKim.

“Another challenge is the fact that we have 17 trailer trucks worth of gear and in five of those trailers is gear that never goes on stage,” said McKim. “That is all the support and admin gear: All of the wardrobe, all of the hair and makeup, all of the spares.”

Twenty-five central staff tour for the Lion King, said McKim, but the bulk of the workforce is 85 local stagehands that help build and maintain the set.

McKim said that there is also a significant amount of equipment transported to fabricate any missing or broken set pieces if any were injured in the journey. “We travel with enough gear to maintain the show without having physical logistical support from the shops. We have welders, drills and a drill press. We can do any type of fabrication to maintain the show,” said McKim.

Sitting by the stage door, Pride Rock is idle, waiting as the stage is being built to accommodate it. “Pride Rock itself is 18 feet long and such an important part of the show to keep maintained,” said McKim. “In order to have this gigantic scenic piece that has to stay on the deck, it collapses on itself. It accordions and compacts all the way down to 8 feet,” said McKim.

Pride Rock is also one of the more technologically advanced pieces in the set, said McKim.

“As Pride Rock comes on and in to the show, it is able to travel in a circle,” said McKim. “It runs on a track that it’s grooved into, very similar to an RC car, where there is a pin that goes in and it drives around the track. When it’s on stage, it uses pinball flippers that work exactly like a railroad switch.”

McKim said that it can be a challenge for him to stay vigilant when putting on the same show in different theaters. “It’s almost more of a challenge to not recreate and fall back into that click and paste mentality,” said McKim.

“To take something that is essentially two decades old and have to look at it with fresh eyes every time we move it is a challenge because it is so comfortable — it is 17 trucks and we know where every little box goes.”

McKim said larger productions like "Les Misérables," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Lion King" define the Broadway experience. “This is my eighth national tour as head carpenter,” said McKim. “To be able to come over and be a part of this thing means a great deal. It’s a very well told story artistically. It’s different. It holds up and continues to be one of the stories people will want to see in a live setting.”

A special sensory friendly performance is scheduled July 21 for those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental disabilities, sensory processing disorder, and other sensory-sensitive people and their families. Tickets starting at $35.

“The Lion King” For a full list of showtimes and ticket prices, visit:

www.whartoncenter. com/events/detail/disneys-the-lion-king


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