On Nov. 13, 1997, what would become one of the most celebrated musicals in history had its official opening on Broadway.
Based on the 1994 Disney movie of the same name, Disney's The Lion King starred Stanley Wayne Mathis as Banzai, one of three hyenas living on the African savanna. It wasn't Mathis' first starring role on Broadway, nor would it be his last, but it is one that has special meaning for the Washington, D.C. native.
"We knew it was special" when Lion King was in rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts, Mathis said. And special it was -- and is, where it continues to play on Broadway almost 20 years later. It is the third longest-running show in Broadway history and has grossed a record more than $1 billion.
Although The Lion King has toured the world, it never has made its way to the Brazos Valley. Until now.
Brazos Valley TROUPE, which has been training young actors for more than 20 years, is preparing Disney's The Lion King jr., a slightly pared-down version of the Broadway original. And, directing the show -- and serving as co-choreographer -- is none other than Stanley Wayne Mathis. How lucky can the young people at TROUPE -- and the entire community -- get?
So big will this production be, that it can't be contained in TROUPE's 29th Street Playhouse. Rather, it will be presented in the Margaret Rudder Theatre at Bryan's Rudder High School. That way, many more people from throughout the area will have a chance to see this spectacular production.
Performances will be at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with matinees at 3 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. General admission tickets are $15 for ages 12 and older and $10 for children 3 to 11. Special VIP seating up front and centered is available for $25, which also includes two tickets to TROUPE's popular Laugh Out Loud! improv/sketch comedy series this fall.
Tickets are going fast. They are available at TROUPE's website, bvtroupe.com, or on the Event Brite site at www.eventbrite.com. I already have my ticket and I am so excited about seeing The Lion King for the first time.
I have caught a bit of rehearsals for Lion King jr. and I can tell everyone is hard at work getting ready for opening night. Not only are the actors putting in a lot of time getting everything right, but costumers, makeup artists and set designers are working overtime to make this the most amazing show in TROUPE's long history.
M.A. Sterling, TROUPE's managing/artistic director, said, "Our creative team is unbelievable. Never before have I seen (or been part of) a show which so many 'blurred lines' of design where costume elements merge into props or props merge into set/scenic design or scenic elements merge into tech aspects.
"There has been a lot of collaboration and a lot of give and take between members of the design team and team is the operative word."
That team includes the always reliable Shelby Rowan, costume design; Amy Wise, headdress specialty design; Kyle Ondrasek, scenic design; Dave Russell, set design; Laura Shahan, hair and makeup design; Mary Kate Walker and Nicolas Roman, properties design; Calista Moats and Henry England, lighting design; Bess Adams, sign design; and Sterling, scoring specialties design. Kortney Osburn joins Mathis as choreographer.
Their efforts will fill the large stage in the Margaret Rudder Theatre.
Mollie Rush, one of my favorite TROUPE alums, is assistant director, while Sterling serves as casting director and vocal director.
Although Mathis has been here only two weeks, he has been hard at work in New York getting ready for this production.
Sterling began getting the cast ready in June, but not without input from Mathis.
"Director Stanley Wayne Mathis has his special creative stamp on every element of design as there has been more correspondence over the past few weeks via email and texting in the history of theater," Sterling said.
When he learned what show he would direct for TROUPE, Mathis visited his tailor in Harlem, where he purchased numerous pieces of material from the tailor's large collection of cloth from around the world. "I knew a lot of the material wouldn't be available in Bryan-College Station or would be very expensive," Mathis said.
He also picked out lots of jewelry for the young actors to wear and had everything shipped to Texas.
This is Mathis's third time directing a TROUPE summer musical and each one gets bigger and more creative.
Sterling said, "Stanley is a consummate professional who works tirelessly and almost effortlessly. Watching him work is sheer joy.
"He is always thinking and is easily one of the most creative and clever people I have ever known.
"He is also one of the most calm people I have ever met and I learn a great deal when I'm in the room."
Asked why he would spend three weeks working with young people in Central Texas during the hot summer months, Mathis said, "I enjoy teaching and developing young talent.
"I like to give back what was given to me," he said. Mathis grew up in Washington, D.C., where he seemed headed toward a life of drugs and crime before a seventh grade English teacher spotted something in him and set him on a better path that has led him to Broadway acclaim.
He said, "Theater teaches lessons: life lessons, moral lessons and gives young people a sense of direction and teaches cooperation with the community."
Sterling said, "For the cast and crew, it is just a phenomenal experience because they are working with one of the true great artists of our time. I say that as his friend but also as his comrade-in-arms and his colleague.
"He is the best!"
So, how did the Broadway star and the local theater director meet?
"Stanley and I have been friends for decades now," Mathis said. "I met him in Houston at a night club.
"I recognized him from having seen him on The Tony Awards broadcast singing and dancing with the late, great Gregory Hines. I walked up to him and said, 'I know you. You're Jack The Bear (the character he played along with Hines in Broadway's Jelly's Last Jam).
"That was it! He was in Houston performing in The Hot Mikado, a contemporary jazzed up version of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado," Sterling said.
"Having been in The Mikado with The Aggie Players in my youth, I just had to see it when he told me that he was doing the show at the old Music Hall in downtown Houston. I saw it four times and, well, the rest, as they say, is history."
Sterling said, "He strongly believes in what we are trying to do here in Bryan-College Station with Brazos Valley TROUPE and is very much committed to our theater and it's success."
If, unlike me, you have seen the movie of musical versions of The Lion King, the characters will be old friends. I can't wait to meet them.
The cast includes AJ Wright as Simba, Nick Roman as Scar, Daniel Beck as Ed, Evan Bendiksen as Pumbaa, Andrew Burgos as Mufasa, Joseph Finch as Banzai, Haille Goodman as Rafiki, Paige Perrone as young Nala, Evelyn Schmeichel as young Simba, Jacob Smith as Zazu, Sage Vantine as Sarafina, MK Walker as Timon, Maddie Weeks as Shenzai, and Ava Williams as Sarabi.
Others in the class are Tyler Burtin, Grace Clark, Emmy Conley, Parker Conley, Ramona Dworkin, Molly Ely, Henry England, Skylar Ford, Jessica Goodman, Mya Hardin, Tessa Jae, Marissa Moats, Mikayla Moats, Dusty Osburn, Jaxson Perrone, Dakota Riggs, Ryder Shahan, Chandler Stafford, Sterling, Sarah Kate Stolz, Ron Toback-Wolf, Liam Vantine, Emma West, Reece Wright, and Kentaro Tamauchi.
TROUPE had planned to join with Bryan schools to present The Lion King jr. last year, but for a variety of reasons those plans fell through.
"That seems to have been a blessing in disguise, however, because, with the way that this process is working out, I would not change a thing," Sterling said.
"That and having Stanley here is just a major blessing.
"When the rights to the show became available for community-based theatres, we jumped at it. Prior to that, it was only open to school programs.
Why hasn't it been done in this area before? Sterling said, "One would think that everyone would jump at the chance to produce it but, after working on this production, I can honestly see why this show is not being as 'bandwagoned,' so to speak, as much.
"It is a huge undertaking and there is a lot more involved in this production that needs to be done on a higher level."
So how will TROUPE's production differ from the Broadway original?
"Quite honestly, the only differences are monetary," Sterling said. "It won't have the millions of dollars invested nor the millions of dollars budgeted.
"The performers, designers and crew are all volunteers and not paid and it won't have the price tag that comes along with that and is usually passed on to the patrons who see the show.
"Other than that," Sterling said, "our guests can expect a very professional showing with wonderful performances, amazing set and scenery, inventive props, sumptuous costumes and much more."
Sterling said, "I would dare say that this Lion King will easily go down as the most amazing production in TROUPE's 22-plus year history."
Mathis said, "I hope we can capture the essence of the show. ... I hope we can convey the heart and soul of the piece."
What's next for Mathis? His first continuing role in a television series. Shortly after Christmas, Mathis was contacted to audition for a role in Rise, a series starring Rosie Perez that has been picked up as a mid-season replacement on NBC.
Mathis calls it a "cross between Glee and Friday Night Lights," two of the most popular series in recent years.
The series, which will film in New York City, features Perez as a school drama teacher and Mathis as the principal.
Despite the TV series, we haven't seen the last of Stanley Wayne Mathis on stage.
As for The Lion King jr., Sterling said, "I am in such awe of what Team TROUPE has come up with so far and can't wait for our audiences to see the spirit and splendor of our journey to The Pridelands."
Tonight is a special night for The Theatre Company in Bryan. The magical theater company will present its 2017-2018 season tonight and it is a bittersweet announcement.
The season reveal always is exciting, but this year will be the first time in more than two decades that longtime artistic director Randy Wilson didn't prepare the announcement. Wilson died unexpectedly last November.
That doesn't mean Wilson's spirit won't live in the new season. In fact, he had made the plans for the upcoming season before he died, and I am happy to say I had a small part in bringing one of the musicals to the community next year.
"For this season we worked it out a little differently," said Adrienne Dobson, who has directed the last four shows after Wilson's death. She was tasked by The Theatre Company board to develop the new season.
"Typically we would put together a selection committee made up of actors, volunteers, and audience members, and then use their input and suggestions to craft the season.
"This year we bypassed that process, because Randy laid out the season for us ahead of time.
"We just had to cross our fingers that everything was available, and it was!"
Wilson was renowned for the clever musical presentation announcing the season at the Preview Party. This year, Dobson collaborated with the incredibly talented Mark Bendiksen on the musical previews.
"This time around our preview show has two purposes," Dobson said. "We're not only announcing our season, but this year also signifies a new beginning for The Theatre Company. During the performance we're also going to take a few moments to honor Randy and our history.
"I am really looking forward to sharing this year's preview show with everyone."
She said, "Putting it together was difficult, since it's the first year we're doing it without Randy. I was very lucky to have Mark Bendiksen as a partner, and I think we've put together a great show.
"The Theatre Company has a really wonderful season lined up with some very exciting shows, several of which are going to be seen in Bryan-College Station for the first time ever."
Here is where I come in, in a small way. I served on the selection committee for several years. Our meetings were a chance for theater lovers to discuss possible shows for the new season. People would recall performances of different shows they had seen and all of us called out shows we wanted to see on The Theatre Company schedule.
For several years I kept pushing for one particular show because I never have seen it and have always wanted to. Wilson agreed, saying he wanted to direct it, too, but somehow it never fit into the season schedule. This coming year, it is on the list and I couldn't be more thrilled. I like to think of it as Wilson's gift not only to me, but to the community.
Board president Roger Pine said, "The stated purpose of the preview party is to announce our upcoming season and to line up the underwriters who back us financially. But it is also a celebration of all of the people who come together to make us a community theater.
"We had a rough year, but thanks to underwriters, patrons, actors, musicians, and crew, we came together to produce some amazing art.
"There will be some time in the program to revisit those past achievements, too," Pine said.
The Preview Party starts at 7 p.m. at The Theatre Company behind JoAnn Fabrics and Crafts in Bryan's Tejas Center. It is always a fun event and it is open to the public at no charge. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
If you absolutely cannot make it to tonight's event, you won't have to miss it.
Pine said, "We don't expect any big changes. It's going to be fun just like in past years. One change is that we do plan to live stream the event over Facebook, so people can tune in worldwide."
Not only will the audience be the first to learn about the new season, they will have the opportunity to be the first to purchase season tickets.
Those season tickets have several benefits. The price of adult tickets to all six shows will be $120, or $102 for seniors and students. But you can save 30 percent by purchasing a season ticket for $84. That's a good deal.
Even better, season ticket holders are admitted to the theater proper first and can pick their favorite seat. And, while they get to wait in the air conditioned inner lobby -- a perk that means a lot in our long summer months.
If you can't make it to the Preview Party, season tickets will be available online at www.theatrecompany.com after tonight's party.
Supporters also will have a chance to sponsor one (or more) of the shows, or the orchestra, costumes, sets and marketing efforts. Putting on a musical theater season is expensive and the generosity of sponsors makes the season possible.
Pressed for a sneak peek at tonight's Preview Party, Dobson said, "All I can tell you is that The Theatre Company's next season will not disappoint! The shows were handpicked by Randy himself, and I think our audiences are going to love every one of them."
This Is Water Theatre concludes it penultimate season with Coping by Jacob Marx Rice. Performances will run through Aug. 5.
The award-winning play examines the aftermath of 25-year-old Connor's suicide as friends and loved ones try to deal with the loss.
This Is Water Director Andrew Roblyer said, "His girlfriend, Sarah, struggles with the guilt of inadvertently handing Connor the means to kill himself. His sister, Jessica, attempts to control every detail of the funeral and punish anyone who questions her, while her girlfriend plays peacemaker. His roommate, Lucas, wanders through life in a stoned haze to avoid the horror of what has happened."
He said, "As each of them tries desperately to make things right, place blame, and confront their own battles with mental illness, they must find a way to come together and accept the unacceptable, or destroy the memory of the one person they all loved."
Theatre Is Easy said, "Rice has crafted a compelling story and managed to create nuance within such a decidedly depressing subject.
"Each individual in Coping experiences grief in a different way. Sarah holds it all in, Taylor makes jokes, Jessica gets angry, and Lucas takes drugs, but despite these wildly different reactions, the connections they share bind them together and offer the support each of them desperately needs."
Coping was honored at the last New York International Fringe Festival.
Roblyer cautions Coping contains strong language and intense subject matter.
Performance are at This Is Water's Watershed Garage at 2151 Harvey Mitchell Parkway S., near the intersection with Longmire Drive in College Station. It is co-located with the Wellness Center.
All performances start at 8 p.m. Remaining performances will be July 26, 27,28 and 29 and Aug. 2,3, 4 and 5.
This Is water operates under a unique pricing plan. Eight tickets for each show are sold at a Pay-What-You-Can rate. The remaining 17 seats also are sold that way, but with a $20 minimum. Of course, patrons are encouraged to pay more if possible, The "break-even" price to cover expenses is $30, while actors will be paid a full wage if patrons pay a minimum of $45 for their tickets.
Tickets may be reserved online at thisiswatertheatre.com. There is a $5 minimum price for reserving seats online.
This Is Water will have one more season before shutting down forever next spring. I almost said "for good," but the theater's closure certainly won't be good. We will lose an incredible venue for amazing new theater in this community.
Thanks to Andrew Roblyer for making this happen.
• Monday and Tuesday -- Auditions for Steel Magnolias at Navasota Theatre Alliance, six woman actors and a stage crew are needed, 6:45 p.m. Performances will be Sept. 15 through Oct. 1. (navasotatheatre.org)
• Saturday -- Wish Upon a Butterfly release, Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History, 3232 Briarcrest Drive in Bryan, 9 a.m. to noon. Butterflies are $25 each and may be reserved by calling the museum at 979-776-2195.
• Every Sunday -- Open mics and poetry slams sponsored by Mic Check Poetry, 8:30 p.m. Revolution Café in Downtown Bryan, (miccheckpoetry.com)
Items for Arts Watch should be emailed to email@example.com. Deadline is noon Tuesday before the weekend you want it to run.