The cast of "The Lion King Jr" prepares to take a bow following a performance at the Struthers Library Theatre on Friday, June 4, 2021.

‘Absolutely Amazing’: The Lion King Jr Exceeds Expectations

June 5, 2021

WARREN, Pa. – The crowd had settled in and only a spattering of “Shh’s” could be heard as the lights went out. A brief silence before subtle sounds of nature filtered through the theatre. Then, that familiar opening hit.

“Naaaaaannnntttss . . . ingonyama bagithi Baba Sithi uhm ingonyama . . .”

The Lion King Jr was off and running at the Struthers Library Theatre Friday night. This musical version of the Disney classic had a unique twist. It starred and was directed by students from across Warren County.

“This is the most incredible group of kids,” Warren Area High School senior and co-director Marylin Shene said. “(They’re) so talented and have such incredible work ethics.”

Shene, along with WAHS junior Logan Johnson, co-directed the musical. While both had some nerves about the show going in, once the show started the cast put all the nervousness to rest.

“There were definitely some pre-show nerves, but those are warranted,” Johnson said. “But then they knocked it out of the park. Once it started, I knew they just had it.”

Rafkiki (Anna Courson) and the animal ensembles got things started and produced the first ovation when Courson “presented” the young Simba to the crowd. While Simba (Blake Ristau), Mufasa (Ethan Monroe), Nala (Ella Getner) and Zazu (Macy Winiki) primed the audience, it was the appearance of a tricky trio that released the charge.

“We knew that the hyenas were going to be a crowd favorite,” Shene said.

“The three of them, Abbi (Wilson), Caroline (Smyth) and Eli (Eastman) were an absolute perfect trio of hyenas,” Johnson added.

The size of the crowd itself, over 500 tickets purchased in advance plus more at the box office, had the directors and some cast members in awe.

“This is probably the most people that have been to a show that I’m in,” Ristau said. “I knew that there would be quite a lot as Lion King is one of the biggest shows, but this is just insane.”

Johnson and Shene had a chance to see the size of the audience just before the curtain went up.

“We went to go check to see where the line was out the door and my jaw dropped,” Johnson said.

“We went up to the balcony before the show and we were in awe that this many people came to a show that we made,” Shene said.

The show was the culmination of the Spring 2021 Allegheny Regional Theatre Experience program. Students in grades 3 – 12 attended one class per week from April 1 through June 3, with Friday’s performance marking the end of the program.

According to the SLT website, the ARTE “educates our community’s youth in the theatrical arts. With a focus on voice, acting, and movement, students of all levels will find space to explore and grow as performers.”

“Go for it,” Johnson said of the program. “It was absolutely amazing. It’s so worth it.”

As the sun set and the theatre went dark for the final time the cast and crew could only marvel as the audience roared its approval. The directors, ending their times as “rulers” of the stage reflected on the entire experience.

“I don’t think we could’ve asked for it to go better,” Shene said. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“That was honestly perfect in my mind,” Johnson said.

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