The Lion King comes to life with return of Dallas performer

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Christopher L. McKenzie, JR. who previously danced at Dallas Black Dance Theater is returning to Dallas for another show. (Courtesy Image)

By Rachel Hawkins, NDG Staff Writer

It is always nice to return to where it all began.

Christopher L. McKenzie, Jr. is the dance captain of The Lion King Broadway traveling production. A native of Miami, Florida, he studied at New World School of the Arts College and trained at The Ailey School. He has danced professionally at Dallas Black Dance Theatre, The Las Vegas Contemporary, and Festival of The Lion King. He is performing in The Lion King for the second year, with the tour visiting nine cities this year.

According to McKenzie, transitioning dancing in college and to a professional production is a challenging experience. After auditioning for seven years, he finally made it into a production where he enjoys doing what he loves.

“Touring with a musical is consistent work,” said. “You get to literally inspire and entertain so many families from all over the world. It’s so over the top and inspirational. It’s a different flair. No matter who you are, when you come to the show, no matter what race, ethnicity, background or religion, our show serves one purpose and that’s to inspire.”

The musical will run from June 13 to July 7 at Music Hall in Fair Park in Dallas.

“It sends the message of things you go through, things in life. However, you can always recover greatly, and that’s such a great message to send to the world.”

Based upon the very popular Disney animated film, the touring production has been experienced by more than 90 million people worldwide.

“I started dancing at the end of high school,” McKenzie said. “It was one of those things where they said hey, you are actually good at this, why don’t we give you a full scholarship. It was crazy because at first, I was a musician. At the end of the day my body took to it, and I was just happy.”

McKenzie is delighted to return to Dallas for this production. The Dallas Black Dance Theater was one of the first dance companies he danced for after college.

“It’s like going back to the beginning and refreshing. It is going to be interesting because I have so many friends coming out to see and support me. It’s going to be emotional, but it is going to be great.”

McKenzie’s favorite part of the show is the opening number, Circle of Life. To him, it’s the most visual opening anyone could ever experience in the world.

“We are drawn in these awesome puppets,” McKenzie said. “We travel with 229 puppets that includes a giraffe, cheetah, zebras, and gazelles.”

He then talked about how the costumes operate and the amount of work that goes into all of them.

“We are dressed as these characters, but what I love most about the costuming is that you can see our faces,” McKenzie said. “As a giraffe, you are on stilts walking across the stage. There’s a head that has a connection to the rest of the costume; it’s almost like a big hat. Every animal has two faces. The face of the person and the face of the animal at the top.”

Since he is the dance captain of the shop, his role is to understudy 11 male ensemble roles.

“I always have to have my mind ready,” McKenzie said. “Sometimes their backs pull out; sometimes their voices aren’t doing the best. I’m the guy that keeps the show going. There are eight of me in the show.”

Besides being the dance captain, he is also a swing. There are two swing male dancers, two swing female dancers, and two swing female singers.

Coming into the show is typically a four week rehearsal period.

“You would rehearsal by yourself with the directors and dance captain,” McKenzie said. “At the end of the rehearsal period, you would then schedule a put-in where we put you into the show where everybody. You would learn numbers, blocking, and choreography.”

All of the costumes are handmade to fit each performer’s specific body.

“The production is so detailed,” McKenzie said. “While the show came out in 1997, it was actually in the works in 1995. Even today it’s still growing, and things are getting more and more detailed.”

The show is fully interactive. The ‘inspiring visual artistry, the unforgettable music, and the uniquely theatrical storytelling of this Broadway spectacular’ were brought to life by an experienced creative team. Julie Taymor, Tony Award-winning director, created the backdrop visuals. Garth Fagan’s, Tony Award-winning is the choreographer for the production. Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning artists music are also featured.

“The blessing of our talent allows us to give back,” McKenzie said. “I build up all of this energy to give because I know it’s going to be reciprocated because I am going to wow you. I train hard; I play hard, I work hard so I can give hard.”