Home May 2010 Loving The Lion King

Loving The Lion King

His first role was playing a reindeer in the third grade, but for actor Ben Lipitz, it’s now all about Disney’s The Lion King.

In fact, Lipitz has been playing Pumbaa, the warthog in The Disney Theatrical Productions show for the past 8 years, which leaps back to the Orange County Performing Arts Center on the Segerstrom Hall stage May 26 for a limited engagement of three weeks through Sunday, June 13.

The opening night is Friday, May 28, at 7:30 p.m. The show’s seven-week premiere engagement in 2005 played a sold-out run. This North American tour is currently one of seven productions running worldwide along with New York, London, Hamburg, Tokyo, Paris, and Las Vegas.

Lipitz says he is eagerly looking forward to playing the OC since he has never done so in the more than 2,500 performances he has played Pumbaa.

“My first role as an actor was when I was in the third grade in a production of Santa Claus and the Magic Boots. I was a reindeer, I think it was Saul the reindeer,” he laughs. “When I was growing up, I was going to either be a rabbi or an actor … I don’t think there’s much difference. But theater stayed my passion as I got older, not that I do not have a passion about my heritage. It’s just what fell my way.”

While Lipitz has played the character for almost a decade, he says the challenge is to keep it “fresh and festive, alive, and connected.”

…. “Because on any given night, some members of the audience may be seeing it for the first or the last time – as an actor, that becomes the responsibility that you have to approach in terms of this work.”

Not Just for Kids

For those who might think The Lion King is just for kids, guess again. Lipitz says it’s anything but and that it is actually more poetic than one might expect.

“What’s nice about The Lion King — besides the fact that it is one of those animated features in Disney’s genre that has become an icon – is that the Broadway musical really reinvented the visual spectacle of the show,” he says. “It’s about Simba accepting the responsibility of who he is and finding his way in the world, and facing his past so he can reclaim his future.

“This is not children’s theater – it is a very sophisticated piece of theater even for adults,” he continues. “The material it is based on is a kid’s tale, but not by any stretch of the imagination is it just for kids …”

As an actor/artist, it has been a blessing for him to play the role in the national production, as well as on Broadway.

“The show itself is the kind of theater that I believe in as an artist – I don’t try to make that demarcation often, but there is a difference between being an artist and being a performer,” he notes. “As an artist, this show does speak to my nature, and that is what I believe theater is with a ‘Capital T.’ It’s the kind of theater that can transform lives and create dialogue where there was none. I believe that The Lion King is that kind of theater …”

The production also continues to draw audiences from around the country, even though the economy has been sluggish. Interestingly enough, Lipitz says the national tour is doing its part, too, in helping the economy in every city it plays.

“Audiences are sometimes smaller than we expect, but we are seeing how our show has impacted the local economy,” he adds. “The company itself is almost 125 people, and coming into a city for 4-5 weeks, that means business for hotels, meals … We are making a difference and a tremendous impact on the economy, because people do want to come see it, they buy tickets a year in advance … they make it a point to see it … They say, ‘I may have to cut back on this, that … but I will make the sacrifice to take my family to see The Lion King, so we can bond together, and to see live theater, is worth it.”

In the Genes

Like most Jews, Lipitz says he grew up in a family where culture and the arts were important.

“I don’t know any friends who I grew up with that weren’t indoctrinated into an appreciation for the arts and culture … this is what we do  … We go to the theater, ballet, orchestra, and we support the arts by being in the audience. We encourage our kids, who have a talent to become artists to go ahead and do so … I do believe that being a part of this show, I am here because of the work of my grandparents.”

However, he does see a change in family values.

“Unfortunately, there has been a decline in the arts and culture; I think it is less today and something we have lost. The commitment isn’t there like when my grandparents stressed it. I think partly because we are working so hard to maintain our own lifestyles.”

Lipitz says the current generation “isn’t passing onto our kids what was passed on to us, especially in Jewish homes, because there are so many other choices now… we are overwhelmed and we have lost the ability to define what quality is.”

Man Behind the Mask

Born in New Jersey, Lipitz is the youngest of three children — he has a sister who was a social worker and brother who is a doctor – his dad was a self-made businessman who retired early.

Married to Rosalie, he performs 52 weeks a year while also being a dad to son, Matthew, 5, and daughter, Mikaela, 18 months.

“I see my family every chance I get,” he says. “I go home no matter what every 2 weeks; it doesn’t matter where I am. I never go long without seeing my family.”

Over the years, Lipitz has appeared in other productions including Goodspeed Opera, Papermill Playhouse); Just So (Goodspeed Opera); ART; Dirty Blonde;Laughter on the 23rd Floor; Forum; Cleveland Playhouse, Kennedy Center, Walnut St. Theatre.

He has also appeared on TV in such shows as The Sopranos, Law & Order, 100 Centre St.Homicide and in the film The Giraffe and Find Me Guilty with Vin Diesel.

“I love what I am doing now, as far as acting jobs go, this is the tippy-top of the world artistically and financially,” he says.

Now in its second sold-out decade in New York, The Lion King is the winner of more than 70 major awards worldwide, including the 1998 Tony Award® and NY Drama Critics Award for Best Musical, the 1999 Grammy® for Best Musical Show Album and the 1999 Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Choreography and Best Costume Design. The show has been seen by more than 50 million people in 13 different countries.

Its director, Julie Taymor, became the first woman in Broadway history to win the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical.

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