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"The Lion King" opens on home soil

South Africa prepares for the first production of “The Lion King” with star-studded gala that will see U.S. talk show queen Oprah Winfrey grace the red carpet.

The musical is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and the South African run has been called a homecoming for the show whose score, choreography and story all have roots in the country.

Audiences "expect this production to be the best 'Lion King' ever because it's in South Africa now," said Simon Gwala who plays Banzai, one of a trio of villainous hyenas in the story of Simba, a lion cub, that is adapted from the Disney animated film. Gwala is part of a cast and crew that is almost entirely South African.

Since it opened on Broadway a decade ago under the direction of Julie Taymor, the show has won 70 major awards worldwide.

Lebo M, the Grammy-winning composer and arranger who added the South African sound to the original Broadway production, co-produced the South African run. Lebo M hopes the production will create new opportunities for South Africans in theater here and around the world.

"Anybody that works the 'Lion King', because of its technical complexity, it's almost like you now have this university certificate where you can work anywhere else in the world with any other show," he said in an interview.

The show brings a new level of sophistication to local theater as it debuts at the Montecasino Teatro, a US$14.5 million state-of-the-art 1,900-seat facility that is the first of its kind on the continent.

With a 53-member cast and six 40-foot trucks worth of staging and scenery, "The Lion King" is one of the biggest touring productions currently being performed in the world, said head technician Mark Henstridge.

Lebo M brought "The Lion King" to South Africa with South African impresario Pieter Toerien. who has long been pushing the envelope of theater here.Michael Bagg, who plays Ed, another of the hyenas, credits Toerien with bringing new standards to local theaters, starting with a production of "Les Miserables" in 1995. Toerien subsequently produced a string of Broadway hits in South Africa including "Cats", "Phantom of the Opera", and "Jesus Christ. Superstar".

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