Reviewed by Jessica Neu
This past weekend, Cranberry’s Comtra Theater hosted their first musical in over a year. Batavia Musical Theater, located in Mars, PA, performed the Lion King Jr. for three sold-out, in-person shows with a digital streaming option also available.
Practicing socially distanced protocol, the “sold out” show meant that guests were socially distanced with empty seats between each party, and patrons were asked to wait in their cars and received a text message when it was their time to enter. Guests were escorted to their seats, reminded to leave their masks on for the duration of the performance, and could be pre-order concessions to pick up at the end of the performance.
Before curtain, studio owner’s Urmi Batavia and director Antonia Botti-Lodovico greeted the crowd who was seated in the round, welcomed them back to the theater, and explained recent cast changes. Rehearsing for the past six months, the hardworking staff consisting of students ranging from second grade to middle school, underwent role changes as recently as opening night due to Covid-related incidents.
However, without that caveat, audience members would likely not have realized that all of the characters had not rehearsed in their roles as performed that evening for the past six months, highlighting the grit, resilience, and professionalism of these young actors. The cast was comprised of all females with exception of one male ensemble member. The non-binary casting only added to the dynamic of the show, allowing for unique, but effective interpretations of traditional male roles including Simba, Scar, Zazu, and Rafiki. Opening with “Circle of Life,” audience members were transported to pride rock with the familiar opening lines of African syncopated rhythms. The small ensemble filled the space of the theater, spreading out on stage and also using the aisles and one balcony as performance space. The choreography consisted of traditional African movements executed with a fluidity that filled the stage with vibrancy and grace. After “Circle of Life,” the actors breezed through a truncated version of the Broadway production with songs specific to the musical including “He Lives in You,” but also the well-known numbers “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” “Hakuna Matata,” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” that were made famous by the original Disney film. The simple yet effective set consisted of leafy vines running the length of each of the 4 posts at the corners of the stage, a multi-colored starry sky, and a portable rock with three stairs for actors to sit, climb, or jump from, that moved throughout each scene to provide depth and effect but did require audience members to really use their imaginations for scenes such as the Elephant Graveyard.
It appeared that audience members were pleased to enact any suspension of disbelief for the sheer fact that they were finally back in a live theater. The enthusiasm from the crowd as well as the performers was palpable and by the closing number and curtain call, it almost felt as if we were rejoicing being together again just as much as we lauded Simba’s circle of life.
In addition to their costumes that paid homage to the Broadway production, the actors’ masks on one hand seemed natural as we have been accustomed to masked life, but also shifted the dynamic of their performance. Usurping a performer’s face emphasizes their words and body movement since the audience can no longer see their facial expressions or emotions. The talented young ladies who portrayed Zazu, Adult Nala, and Timon did an exceptional job emoting through their voices, gestures, and eyes. However, the entire cast brought energy and emotion that made up for the missing performative attribute of the face, specifically by maintaining eye contact with audience members as they sang. The close proximity of audience members allowed characters to make and maintain eye contact with patrons that communicated, in some regards, more than facial expressions ever could. If the eyes are the window to the soul, these performers communicated a depth and veracity beyond their years that made audience members feel connected, once again, after a year of fractured uncertainty.
For more information on Contra’s upcoming events visit https://www.comtratheatre.org