PEEK BEHIND THE MIGHTY MASKS AND PUPPET-COMBO COSTUMES WITH THE LION KING‘S LONGTIME PUPPET-KEEPER AND ITS NALA, NORCROSS’ NIA HOLLOWAY
The North American tour of “The Lion King” runs Jan. 10-28 at the Fox Theatre. Details, tickets HERE or at 855.285.8499.
FOR NIA HOLLOWAY, it was a childhood highlight: the family gathering by the TV to watch Disney’s The Lion King, the 1994 animated movie that won two Oscars and two Golden Globe awards.
“We would get a whole bucket of ice cream, and Mom would let us eat it,” she says. “I knew that movie front to back.”
The movie, which takes place in a kingdom of African lions, was influenced by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It, in turn, influenced Holloway. By age 4, she’d sing for anyone. “I was never that kid who was too shy,” she says. She favored Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” or anything by Destiny’s Child.
At 9, she auditioned to play young Nala in a tour of the stage musical, a dream done in by her height —salready 5-feet-6. In Act 1 of the show, children play Nala and Simba, her intended mate.
At 11, Holloway was 5-feet-9. Growing up in Norcross, the eldest of three sisters, she topped out at 5-feet-10 and played on the 2013 Norcross High School team that won a state basketball championship.
Then she auditioned for another Lion King tour. The Atlanta casting call was for ages 18 and older. Holloway was 17, “but something told me to just step out and take a chance.” She sang her go-to audition song, Beyonce’s “Listen.” She heard nothing for a month, then emailed the casting director.
“I was determined,” she says.
She became the grown-up Nala and, since she wasn’t yet of legal age, her dad joined her on tour. She finished high school online, with tutors in every city. That was almost five years ago. She’s done Nala across North America ever since. Now 22, Holloway will play her 2,000th performance later this year.
“I still get chills at the top of Pride Rock,” she says. “Even now, every time the curtain goes down, tired or not, I’m still like, ‘Wow, can you believe it, you’re in The Lion King!’”
She just couldn’t wait to be queen
She’s also happy to be coming home.
“I get to sleep in my own room, in my own bed. And I’ll get my mom’s cooking. And my sisters.” Sisters Audrey and Naomi are studying law, but music is a family tradition. Grandmother Loleatta Holloway sang disco (“Hit and Run,” “Love Sensation”); great-grandmother Sylvia Shemwell sang backup for Elvis.
Holloway gets emotional when talking about her parents, who were teenagers when they married and had her. “People told them they were nothing and that their baby — me — would be nothing. But they’re strong, resilient and amazing. I love them so much for believing in me, and I owe them everything.”
Leaving home at 17 makes it easier for her to relate to Nala, she says, calling the princess a “very strong and dynamic, yet vulnerable, character. She’s a young warrior but also just a teenager thrown into a situation where she must find help and discover her own journey. She’s a fierce symbol of strength and girl power. All of those things relate to me.”
‘A certain kind of magic’
The wildly creative masks and puppet-combo costumes that Holloway and her 47 cast mates wear started on Broadway with director Julie Taymor and designer Michael Curry, who didn’t want actors to be stuck in animal suits unable to express emotion with their eyes and faces.
The costumes — human and animal at the same time — allowed the animated story to be told onstage.
“It’s a certain kind of magic,” says Michael Reilly, this tour’s puppet master. “You experience what the animal is feeling through the human.”
The original, now in its 21st year on Broadway, was named the best musical of 1998 and also won Tony awards for its scenic, costume and lighting designs; choreography; and direction.
Holloway wears Nala’s mask-face as a headpiece. It’s made of a super-strong but lightweight carbon fiber. Her Balinese movements, Reilly says, help the mask move in different ways. “When she stretches, or ducks her head, she’s able to articulate her body to make the mask look like it’s alive.”
Other beastly puppet-costumes are more cumbersome or complex, says Reilly, who oversees repair and maintenance of 230 handmade puppets, ranging in size from Scar’s pet mouse (5 inches long) to a 13-foot-long elephant.
Pumbaa, the warthog, is the heaviest puppet, at 43 pounds. The actor playing Zazu, the hornbill, has a lot of buttons and levers. They move his mouth and eyes, flap his wings, or extend or retract his neck. The actor playing the villainous Scar must operate hand controls while moving and delivering his lines.
“Using his finger controls, Scar can drop his mechanical mask in front of his face and become more lion-like,” Reilly says, “or he can put it on top of his head and be more human-like. He can work with those two parameters to tell us how angry he is at the moment.”
Reilly’s been tending to Lion King upkeep for 15 years and says he’d sign on for the next tour, too. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a jubilant atmosphere.”
His favorite costume is Mufasa’s: “I love that his mask represents the sun and the circle of life. It’s beautiful but so hard to fix.” Mufasa’s mane is made of lightweight wood pieces that are “always breaking, so we are constantly gluing and painting.”
Reilly’s chief mission is to keep Taymor’s vision alive “so that The Lion King not only looks as good as it did on Day 1, it all operates like it’s Day 1, too.”
As long as he has zip ties and gaffer’s tape, the circle of life will go on. And on, and on, and on, it seems.