This week, Disney’s “The Lion King” musical pounces onto the stage at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall for its Sarasota debut.
For two members of the cast, it will be a return home.
Martina Sykes and Kayla Rose Aimable are both Florida natives pursuing careers in performing arts.
The women spoke with the Bradenton Herald ahead of the show’s arrival in the sunshine state.
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Here’s what they had to say about life onstage and where they hope to go from here.
Martina Sykes: Shenzi
St. Petersburg native Martina Sykes plays the spunky lead hyena in Scar’s crew.
Sykes has always loved entertaining; she sang in her father’s church and attended a performing arts high school.
Sykes thought she was done with showbiz after high school. But after graduating from University of Florida with a public relations degree, she went to New York City on her brother’s advice and started landing parts.
How did you get into performance?
I actually started out singing in church. My dad’s a pastor in St. Petersburg. So we grew up singing in church. And then I went to Perkins Elementary and then John Hopkins Middle School and then to Gibbs PCCA (Pinellas County Center for the Arts).
Do you think your experiences at performance arts schools helped prepare you for what the entertainment world is really like?
Absolutely, and then no at the same time. I learned so much discipline from Gibbs. The way that they rehearsed and the way that the classes were run, you learned a lot about respect and integrity. It carries out here. Once I Ieft Gibbs, I was like, I don’t want to do this anymore, I’ll go to college for something else. I went to University of Florida for public relations. So most of the training that I have is based on what I learned in middle school and high school and elementary school. When I got out of college, my brother, who is on Broadway, said come to New York and try it out and see what you think.
I didn’t go to AMDA (The American Musical and Dramatic Academy) or another private school or acting lessons because I didn’t have the money for it. I just went straight into auditioning. So whatever I had was whatever I knew from high school.
And in a way that it didn’t really prepare me — while this business is competitive, it’s not as competitive as I think sometimes schools make it.
It’s really like you are in competition with yourself to become a better self. So each time that a casting director sees you, you want to be better than the last time you went in there. To show personal growth and show that you take your craft seriously. It’s really not about who went in there before you or after you.
There’s enough room for everybody.
What was it like doing “Motown: The Musical?”
Bittersweet. I did the tour for two and half years. That was amazing, being able to tell that story all over the country. People love Motown music. There’s nothing like it. But then we closed early on Broadway. So that was another lesson in how the business can be cutthroat. Going on Broadway, opening, and then a week later getting a closing notice.
But I think the great thing about it was that we were leaving a tour. So we actually had the experience of doing the show for a good length of time before going to Broadway. I am grateful to have seen both sides of that coin.
You play the lead hyena, Shenzi, in “The Lion King.” What’s special to you about that character?
I love how strong she is. I love that she’s witty and she’s the boss. And even though she’s Scar’s right-hand woman, she kind of proves to be the boss at the end because they kill him. He’s thinking oh, these hyenas are stupid and I can take advantage of them. But behind the scenes she has her own plan and something she’s trying to use him for and something she wants to get out of this situation.
And I like that she’s hilarious.
Is it hard to get used to performing with a puppet?
Yes. Especially trying to make it come alive. Because it’s a full-body puppet. My puppet has a harness, so it covers my chest and it clips around my waist. The puppet comes out from the front of my chest. There are two wires that connect to a crank that’s on my head. So when my head moves the front of the puppet head moves. And my arms are strapped into the legs of the hyena. So when I walk around I’m walking on all fours all the time. And then when I want to talk I clip the right leg into the left leg so I balance both legs on one hand and the left leg. And then I put my right hand in the puppet. And I’m left-handed, so that can be a little tricky.
What’s your favorite part of “The Lion King?”
I have a lot of fun doing this show. I love the character, and it’s a great story. Each time I watch it, there are different pieces or lessons that I didn’t catch before. There are so many characters that you can identify with. And especially with the women being so strong in the show. It’s incredible. And then you have the African culture on top of that. And learning what those songs mean and getting to know the people and the culture. There’s nothing like it.
Do you have any advice for kids from St. Pete or Florida who want to do what you’re doing?
Be on time, be prepared and be fantastic. Cover those three things and leave a great impression in the audition room and even in your school room.
Integrity starts at home. It starts when nobody’s looking. It starts just with you. Integrity will take you a lot further than talent will.
And try to get better at something everyday. YouTube is your friend. Utilize your resources.
Kayla Rose Aimable: Lioness, ensemble
If you see “The Lion King,” you will see Kayla Rose Aimable onstage many times. As a member of the ensemble, Aimable portrays a lioness, a tuft of grass, a wildebeest and lots of other characters in the circle of life.
Aimable is from West Palm Beach, but her passion for performance developed after she moved out of the state as a child.
She later returned when she scored a part in a Westcoast Black Theater Troupe production of “The Color Purple,” a role that pushed her to pursue more work in musical theater.
You did some acting with Westcoast Black Theater Troupe in Sarasota. How did that come about?
I started working with them because my very first choreographer that I worked with in Little Rock, Arkansas, was actually directing and choreographing “The Color Purple” in Sarasota. He said if you send in your singing reel they’ll probably consider you for the show. So I said why not. I was in New York at the time in between jobs and auditioning. So I did that and two weeks later they said, you’re going to be in Sarasota for “The Color Purple.” I was in the ensemble but I also played a role as Odessa, one of the sisters. It was a really awesome experience meeting everyone in the community.
It was actually always a dream of mine to be in that show, but I didn’t think it would happen because it’s such a heavy actor/singer show. I’m predominantly a dancer/singer/actress.
I had to challenge myself mentally because it was such a switch. It was about just being. Whatever happens every night, just let it happen naturally.
So you consider yourself a dancer first?
Well, I definitely started dancing first. I started training when I was 8 years old, so I’m just more comfortable dancing. I just started singing and dancing in high school, which made me want to do more with the theater. So I went to AMDA to further my studies with musical theater and I just fell in love with it. And I said, you know what, let me dibble and dabble with singing and acting.
Was performing always something you wanted to do?
For sure. I was just always such a drama queen. I would take things to the next level and my mom was like, oh my god, what do I do with all this energy?
So I started out being a cheerleader for my brothers’ football and basketball teams. When we moved out of Florida to Las Vegas, that’s when I really wanted to explore dancing more. My mom was a single mom and she was trying to figure out what worked for all four of her kids. It was sports for my brothers, but for me she didn’t know what to do. So I asked her to sign me up for an after-school dance program. She did, and a year later I got a scholarship to go to Nevada Ballet Theatre. At first I thought it was so boring. But then I found the right teacher and it just went on from there.
When I was older I got to work with a community arts center in the west Las Vegas area. I got involved with teaching kids about culture, having shows about things like apartheid, racism in America, knowing your rights. Really just educating the kids, through movement, about who they are as individuals and what they are capable of. And now it’s grown so much that the kids now there are amazing modern ballet dancers. They’re going to colleges all around the country. They found themselves in the black community and now they want to do more for their community.
When I get to go back it’s great to share my stories and experiences with them. And how “The Lion King” has transformed my life.
What’s special to you about “The Lion King?”
Honestly, it’s always been part of my life. I’m a ‘90s kid so I grew up watching it from the age of 5. I mean, rewinding, fast forwarding to the best parts, press play. For fun.
So I just grew up wanting to be a part “The Lion King” before I even knew it was going to be a show or a hit.
I recently got to go to South Africa on vacation. So I really got to experience the essence of South Africa and the culture and the people and I was just blown away.
Did that give a new meaning to performing in the show for you?
Oh my gosh, yes. My head wanted to explode onstage the next week. I could see what everything means. When Nala says, ‘There’s no food, there’s no water,” I could feel that. People are really trying to make something out of nothing. People are really struggling out there.
And the fallen king. The king has fallen and the evil brother has come in to take over the kingdom. There are dictators there that are working upstairs and they really just want to take care of themselves.
We can really learn so much from the animals, as time and evolution and generation progress. But at the same time we’ve lost that essence of who we’re supposed to be. I believe we’re supposed to be here to help one another. And if you’re here to help yourself, it’s self destruction.
But yeah, visiting South Africa made the story make that much more sense. I’m grateful to be telling this story every night.
So what’s your role in the ensemble?
I think I change about 14 times.
I start out as a zebra in “Circle of Life.” I’m the last zebra that comes out. And then Scar eats my leg. I am reincarnated as somebody else at the end.
But after I’m a zebra I’m a piece of grass, then I’m a lioness for the female dance number, then I’m a hyena for “Be Prepared,” then I’m a wildebeest, so I help kill Mufasa, then I’m a hyena again, then I’m an ancestor for the second act, then I’m a lioness again to support Nala as she goes out to find help.
So I’m pretty much a lioness through a lot of the show and then I’m just popping in here and there.
What’s your favorite part of the show?
I love “Lioness Hunt.” I love that number because it’s the female dance number and we kind of establish the lionesses. And it was also the number that I learned for the the audition. It always brings back those memories of having to fight for my life in that audition.
And I also really love “Be Prepared.” That’s when we can really let our crazy out.
Details: March 14-31. Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. $52-$167. Info: 941-953-3368. vanwezel.org.