“The Lion King” is a show that has it all, and it’s about to arrive at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall for its Sarasota debut.
Audiences continue to draw new meanings from the story’s scenes of coming of age, children and parents, love and loss, life, death and redemption.
Since its premier in 1997, the musical has reached more than 95 million people in 25 global productions.
It also matches one of Disney’s most majestic heroes with one of its most dastardly villains.
That’s right: Mufasa and Scar.
It takes special people to fill the big paws of these beloved characters.
Gerald Ramsey and Spencer Plachy are those actors. The men spoke with the Bradenton Herald ahead of the show’s visit to Sarasota this month.
Here’s what they had to say. And don’t worry, they are friends in real life.
Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa
Gerald Ramsey is a performer and dancer from American Samoa. Ramsey studied traditional Polynesian dance and incorporates it into his “Lion King” role. He got the part after he tried out an open call in Honolulu on a whim and a promise of free lunch. Now, he has spent more than three years with the tour and hopes to make a career of performance.
How did you get into performance?
Performance is kind of part of where I come from, culturally — from American Samoa and Polynesia. It’s not just entertainment but how we pass down all of our stories historically. We don’t have written word, traditionally. We pass all of our stories down through song and dance and chants.
You studied that culture, correct?
I lived in Hawaii and I worked for a place called the Polynesian Cultural Center. So I danced professionally for a few years. But as far as musical theater, “Lion King” is my first professional musical theater experience.
Does your experience with Polynesian dance influence your performance in the show?
Definitely. I was so fortunate that “Lion King” was open to allowing me to use Polynesian dance and movement in my storytelling as Mufasa. I was encouraged by my former director to use Polynesian movement.
So you were allowed to really make the role your own?
Yeah, which is great. I think with all of the performers there is a certain core to each character in the show. But we’re allowed to bring a little bit of ourselves into it to make it more authentic.
Have people back home seen the show?
Yeah, pretty much all of my family has seen it by now. I’ve been on the road for about three-and-a-half years now. I auditioned in Hawaii, but the show hasn’t gone back since I’ve joined. So my friends and family in Hawaii who haven’t left the mainland haven’t seen it yet. And the show is probably never going to go to Samoa, so New Zealand would be the next closest hometown where most Pacific Islanders could see it. The North America tour isn’t making it there.
It must have been very cool moment for the people who recognized the traditional dance that you put into the part.
Yeah, especially Polynesians that I don’t know. Once they find out that there is a Polynesian in the show — there’s been such a great support system of Polynesians across the country coming out to watch and support me. They’ll even come to the stage door and wait to meet me. And the cast will assume they are all my family and friends. Nope, that’s just how we are. We just support each other.
What’s you favorite part about playing Mufasa?
I think it’s a chance to portray a father figure who gets to pass on his knowledge, as far as ancestry, on to the next generation. There’s a scene where Mufasa sings a song called “They Live in You” to Simba. It’s kind of like a heavy emotional moment where he’s explaining to his son that, I’m not always going to be here, but even when I’m no longer here, I’m still part of you. You came from me, and I came from generations who were before me. And everything that you are came from the people that came before you. And that’s something that we believe in the Pacific so I’m glad that I get a chance to share that message with audiences every night.
If there was another character in the show you could play, who would it be?
To be honest, I would love to play any of the ensemble roles. I came from ensemble dance. As a part of the ensemble, there’s a freedom in being able create whoever your character is. So if I’m a lioness, I can create my own back story as a lioness. It’s not restricted to whatever is written in the script. Being in the foreground and the spotlight has always been challenging for me. I love being in the background and being a supportive role or a foundational role. That’s where I’m more comfortable as far as performance. I love to play a little bit in the background. And you kind of build this camaraderie as far as being in a big group of ensemble members. And everyone would love to play Scar.
Do you guys get along in real life?
Yeah, we do actually. The Scar we have now, his name is Spencer Plachy, is still pretty new to the cast. We’re still getting to know each other, but he’s a pretty cool guy.
What’s the stage dynamic like between the two of you?
Man, it’s a very cool and complicated relationship. I’m sure on Scar’s side it’s kind of like an iceberg. There’s a tip he’s showing me and it’s not very nice. There’s definitely a grudge he’s holding against me as Mufasa. But as Mufasa, I have so much love for my brother, and I just don’t get why he wont stop being this thorn in my side and keep poking me. He knows what my weaknesses are and he keeps jabbing at those. Ultimately it would be jealously and bitterness. We have such short scenes together so it’s fun to explore those in such a short amount of time.
Are there little differences in the way you act those scenes from night to night?
Definitely. That’s the incredible thing about live theater. Every night, something is different, whether it’s something technical or an actual choice we make. It keeps you listening, and it really does keep the show fresh for us. I feel like if we had to do the exact same thing every night, it would be easy to burn out onstage.
On a certain level there’s an expectation that the audience has for something familiar. But it’s also fun to try to throw a little something in that is fresh and different.
Our musicians will kind of do that too, sometimes. If there’s a little part of the show where they can ad-lib or vamp, you’ll suddenly hear a slightly different melodic take on something.
In other interviews you’ve said that you are very concerned about climate change and sea level rise. Do you think you can read some of those modern issues into The Lion King?
Definitely. Especially when it comes to that transition between leadership under Mufasa versus Scar. There’s this kind of mismanagement of natural resources. Whereas under Mufasa there was an understanding of the circle of life and how everything is connected and there needs to be a balance.
Even when Simba asks, ‘What are those birds over there?’ And the answer is they’re buzzards. Things die. We have to eat some things, but then when we die we provide nutrients for something else.
But when Scar comes in he just tells the lionesses and the hyenas to kill everything; eat everything. The water dries up, all the plants die, and then everyone ends up starving. It’s kind of like take, take, take. A greedy mentality that we don’t leave anything for tomorrow.
Do you think the arts has the potential to reach people on issues like that?
Definitely. I think music and art has that power. Where you can sit in a theater or listen to a song and not realize that’s it’s moving you in a certain way. Kind of like when you watch a film and the underscoring can move you to feel things that you didn’t realize because of the music.
There’s a movement in the Pacific as far as song and dance where these contemporary musicians and dance groups are now traveling around the Pacific trying to inform our own people. It has to start at home. There are people in the Pacific who aren’t even fully realizing the cause and effect of climate change. So I think once we can collectively know that we’re all in it together, we’ll have a stronger voice. Right now it seems like we’re a bunch of smaller voices in the Pacific. We’re trying to get that collective together so we have a larger voice.
Do you have hope that things are getting better?
It’s kind of challenging with the current administration and everything, when there are still major players in the world refusing to believe that climate change even exists. But I think in the Pacific, definitely. There’s a movement toward renewable resource energy. It’s a part of our curriculum now in the Pacific. States like Hawaii and California are going to climate change conferences on their own.
Spencer Plachy as Scar
Spencer Plachy is a New York City-based actor whose credits include “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” on Broadway. Plachy is one of the newest members of “The Lion King” cast, and he’s enjoying the challenges of the role.
So, in this show, you get to play the villain. Have you ever done that before?
No, nothing that was a straightforward villain. The closest thing I can think maybe was Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar” but that’s just because he has kind of a vengeful, murderous streak in him.
It seems like it would be a fun part to play.
Absolutely. I think we all have this thing inside of us that wants to break the rules. And when you get to be in a play, it’s very fun to explore that. At least in the imagination of it all.
You’re relatively new to the cast, right?
Yeah, I started performing in late October.
How did you get the part?
Well, my wife and I live in New York City. We’re both actors there. My agent that I’ve been with for 10 or 11 years now is always sending me appointments to consider. An appointment opportunity came in, and my wife and I discussed what it would mean to be out on the road on tour and we decided it’s a good time in life to see how that would go. So I confirmed the appointment, walked in, it went my way and the rest in history.
She’s back in New York working on her own stuff. She’s made her way out to visit a few times. She just booked a trip to Sarasota so she’ll be there for 10 days while we’re in Sarasota.
What was it like settling into the technical aspect of the role with dance and costuming?
I’ll go through two-and-a-half, three weeks of rehearsals before I incorporate any of the costume elements, really. You spend that time honing in on the character and figuring out all of the acting bits. Then you get thrown into all of these costume elements and it changes everything, of course. It’s almost like starting over. Scar, for example — when the costume is all put together and all on, it adds about 38 pounds. That is certainly something to acclimate to, the weight alone. That’s not to mention that Scar has this wonderful mechanical mask that’s another layer to operate and figure out the timing with that. So it does take a while.
And then your performance still has to shine through all of that.
Yeah. And when they say it takes a while for that costume to become a part of your body, it does. I don’t know what I would compare it to. It’s pretty unique. This show is incredibly unique. While we’re on the subject of costumes, there’s nothing else like it. The most elaborate costume I have encountered prior to this was an 18th century-period wig. We were doing a production of “Amadeus.” So we had all those period costumes. Mozart era. That kind of business. Outside of that, nothing comes close to this.
What would you say the biggest challenges of the role have been?
Oh man. I’d say, when I play Scar, once I acclimate to the weight and orient myself to the costume, it’s pretty much part of my body now. That’s not something I’m thinking about anymore. That said, I think the challenging part now is that when I’m playing Scar, I take on a Scar voice. So I open up my throat and (Scar voice), I’ve got this deep, low accent that I’m using.
That is something that now I’m really paying attention to. That gets tiring doing eight, sometimes nine shows a week. So I’m thinking about how I can preserve that to get through a week without over fatiguing myself vocally. That’s my new challenge and focus lately. To (Scar voice) maintain that character, and maintain that voice. It’s getting rest, staying hydrated, a lot of that stuff.
Several other cast members have found new, modern meanings in the story of “The Lion King.” What do you take out of it?
That it’s timeless and it appeals to all ages, that’s very noticeable. Stepping out of the show and watching it, I’m incredibly moved by the father-son relationship between Mufasa and Simba. I find that to be a really beautiful part of the show, and Gerald does it just wonderfully. I think that’s something almost all of us can relate to.
The moment that really sticks out to me is when Mufasa and Simba are talking to each other in this grass field at night and Simba says to him ‘Dad, we’re pals, right?’ And he says ‘Of Course.’ ‘And we’ll be together forever, right?’ And then Mufasa is just silent. And then he goes on to explain to him about when kings die that the stars are kings from the past and he is trying to communicate to him that he won’t be here forever. So, a very touching, moving moment. Life and death, what happens when you die. Absolutely, these are all themes in the show that we all think about.
So, Gerald said that you two are developing a pretty good stage dynamic so far. That must be a fun relationship onstage between the hero and the villain.
Oh yeah. Gerald’s such a nice guy and he’s got such a powerful presence onstage. It’s just intimidating in a great way. We have one scene together and another quick one later in the show. But yeah, I’m trying to live my best in that moment opposite of him every night and finding those little nuances within our scenes. There two short scenes, but yeah, I would absolutely agree.
So there are some little spots for improv from night to night?
The hyenas definitely have that kind of freedom within the box of the story, and they’re just great at it. And Zazu and Scar have this scene together where there’s a bit of leeway as well. Definitely a great part of it that keeps it alive, keeps it fresh.
So you’ve done some Broadway and a little bit of television work. Do you have a preference for one kind of acting? What would you like to pursue more?
Well, I definitely would want to pursue TV film more. I was on set for one episode of “Shades of Blue” on NBC. I was on set for three days, and it was just really cool. I look forward to more of those opportunities for sure. To this point, my experience is almost exclusively theater outside of that little job. But I hope to do more of that.
This won’t be your first time at Van Wezel, correct?
I’ve been there, I believe, twice before. About 13 years ago, for a national tour of “Oklahoma.” And right before that for a national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Do you have any hobbies outside of the theater?
I’ll read, I’ll play some video games. I’ll do some pencil sketches on occasion. But right now I’m getting toward the end of “Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton. It’s actually the third time I’ve read it, it’s very enjoyable.
Details: March 14-31. Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. $52-$167. Info: 941-953-3368. vanwezel.org.