For young actors, excitement and search for excellence mix in ‘Lion King Jr.’

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Bubbly laughter rang through the backstage of Lehman College’s Lovinger Theatre during a production of Lion King Jr. by a troupe from the Riverdale Children’s Theatre, and no signs of stage fright were in sight. 

As the crew put finishing touches on set designs and costumes, the actors in the production––children and teenagers who range from third to ninth grade––were waiting, excitedly, for the show to start. 

“Because it’s a children’s theater show, people are going to be really shocked to see how great it can be,” said Dylan Mejil, an eighth grader who plays the baboon Rafiki in the show.  

The educational theater program, which just kicked off its seventh season last month, has been preparing for the show since October. Even though Lion King, the 1994 animated Disney film, is marketed with a “Jr.” at the end of its title to denote that it is a shorter version of the story, that did not stop director Becky Lillie Woods from scheduling rehearsals twice a week for three hours and eventually every day as the show dates drew closer. 

“We were really excited by the fame of Lion King,” she said. “It’s such an amazing show and just the legacy it has and the story.”

Although the Riverdale Children’s Theatre is a revolving door of productions––this season the troupe is putting on shows such as Seussical Jr., Shrek Jr. and a pilot production of Aladdin––Woods still attempts to keep her performers motivated.

“We strive to always have [the] ultimately professional show and we find that kids really respond to that as well,” she said. “They really want to do their very best.” 

Of course, there were obstacles for the actors throughout the course of the production that they had to overcome in order to mold themselves into their roles. Dylan had trouble keeping a hunched over stance in his scenes. Matthew Aponte, a seventh grader at Horace Mann who plays young Simba, had to learn to put more naiveté into the role. Meanwhile, Jenna Tomkiel, a seventh grader at Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy who plays Zazu, had to learn how to do a British accent and deliver her lines slowly. 

But each actor adjusted accordingly and Matthew even said he felt like his singing had improved in three months of rehearsing. And like her fellow cast members, Jenna gives a lot of credit to Woods and her husband, Derek Woods, for their guidance along the way. 

“They always give us critiques but in a nice way that isn’t like scary or upsetting and they really just help us as actors,” she said, “and we have other people that really help us. I definitely want to [act] when I’m older. I want to be on Broadway.”

“They’re not mean to you if you mess up your line or anything and the crew has such a great teaching authority,” Dylan added. “They just teach us so much throughout the production[s], especially with such a complicated thing to perform like the Lion King.” 

But when it comes to whether or not the young actors will take their theater experience beyond Riverdale, it is a gamble for a program that is only seven years old. So far, they have only seen Jharrel Jerome, a Bedford Park native, go on to the big screen in this year’s Oscar nominated film Moonlight.

Woods said that the team at Riverdale Children’s Theatre tries to “encourage them to do it for the love of it and see what happens as they get into high school and then decide if they want to pursue it.”

“We don’t really want to push the professional aspect on them because we think that can be tough on kids,” she said. “We leave [auditions for TV shows, commercials and finding agents] to other companies in the city.” 

But for now, Woods and her teammates aim to help the children and teens learn about each other and their surrounding community, something that Matthew has picked up on.

“RCT is a big family, as Becky and Derek always say,” he said, “and if I had to choose one word to describe [that feeling] I would say emotional.”

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