Erica Denise Bledsaw & LaShondra Hood. Photo: Keith Waits

Disney’s The Lion King Experience, Jr.

Music & lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice
Additional Music & Lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, & Hanz Zimmer
Book by Roger Allen & Irene Mecchi
Based on the Broadway production directed by Julie Taymor
Directed by Erica Denise Bledsaw

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2019 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

The original animated movie The Lion King was one in a series of huge box office and critical successes for Walt Disney Studios, back before they took over the entertainment world. It was a wonderfully realized story with multi-generational appeal.

But when Avant-garde theatre director Julie Taymor was commissioned to develop a stage adaptation, she saw it not as another anthropomorphic morality tale for children but a story of Africa. Emphasis was placed on casting African American actors in the principal roles and the music, while still a Broadway score designed for maximum commercial impact, picked up on African musical motifs just enough to reinforce the new context.

When the inevitable “live” action remake came along that concept was maintained. All of which is to say that The Lion King has now been firmly established as an expression of African American cultural history.

Does that lay too heavy a burden on this production of the “Jr.” version at Louisville Central Community Center? I don’t believe so. It’s my job to recognize context and how a classic’s meaning can be altered over time, but ultimately this is a show populated by children who are having a joyous time on stage.

It is abbreviated some but the story is intact. Simba (Cailyn Gold) is born to Mufasa, (Kayden Ancrum) the Lion King of Pride Rock, and they are both betrayed by Scar (Zariah Buckner), Mufasa’s evil brother. Like many a hero, Simba must come of age on a journey of self-discovery before he can take his rightful place where his father once stood.

Director Erica Denise Bledsaw uses a roster of Pit Singers to fill out the thrilling choral arrangements, and most of her young charges sign well enough in the leads, although these are mostly undeveloped voices. Still, Zariah Buckner had a good voice and the moves for Young Simba, as did Ton’Niyah as Young Nala, and John Johnson, Jr. as Timon and Samiah Stephens as Pumbaa are not ashamed to embrace the silliness of the two most broadly comic characters.

Zoe Wolf gave Zazu, the red-billed hornbill, a snooty, clipped British accent straight out of Noel Coward, but best of all was Nariah Moore-Grubbs, who played the Mandrill Monkey Rafiki, easily commanding the stage with the authority of a mature, adult performer. She made quite an impression.

The rest of the kids held their own, giving it their all and filling the stage with so much charm and tiny tykes energy that makes any criticism simply useless.

Featuring Kayden Ancrum, Triniti Barker, Zariah Buckner, Chastity Cardell, Cailyn Gold, Nariah Hines-Henderson, Jayse Holt, Paige House, Nia Jackson, John Johnson, Jr., Jasmine Johnson, Rhaema Jones, Elonnah Kine, Elliot Ann Lanier, Ton’Niyah Martin, Mackenzie Mitchell, Nariah Moore-Grubbs, Sydni Penny, Zoey Sisson, Jeremiah Stephens, Samiah Stephens, Zoe Wolf, Cateley Woodard, Jeremyah Wright, Nadia Wright, & Kya Young.

At the close of this final performance, Erica Denise Bledsaw, who spent the last five years making this program what is, formally announced who would replace her as she becomes the Director of Learning and Creative Engagement at Actors Theatre of Louisville. When the name LaShondra Hood was announced, the explosion of excitement from the entire cast and crew indicates that the future of the Louisville Central Community Center art program is in good hands.

Disney’s The Lion King Experience, Jr.

December 6, 7, & 8 @ 7:00 pm
December 8 @ 2:00 pm

Youth Repertory Theatre Troupe of Louisville
Louisville Central Community Center
1300 West Muhammad Ali Blvd.
Louisville, Kentucky 40203


Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM /, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for