With a diverse cast comprised of more than 56 area children, aged 5 to 16, the DeSoto Family Theatre production of Broadway's "The Lion King Jr." is being staged in this area for the very first time, according to director Whitney Branan, herself a Broadway actress and Memphis native.

The production opens Friday night with a 7 p.m. curtain time and runs this weekend and next with Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances.

"I'm excited that we're doing this show," said Branan, in between rehearsals at the Landers Center Theater. "It's such a diverse show and requires such diversity in talent among the cast," Branan said. "It's got a lot of dancing and a lot of acting. It requires a large cast. We are hoping that it will affect our demographic and will bring people in the house to view the Lion King."

Branan said the musical has a powerful message that applies on many levels, in addition to providing dynamic entertainment.

"Well, yes, it's based on the stage version of the animated film but it's also based on Hamlet," Branan said. "It's got grand Shakespearean themes. The history of your ancestors, their legacy and responsibility and running away from the fears of living up to that responsibility, and also failing your destiny."

Branan, whose mother Debbie is a well-known advocate of children and youth in the DeSoto County court system, said children can benefit greatly from the musical's message.

"It's also about redemption and returning back to your family and even finding a new family," Branan said. "It's also got this really interesting story of female power. The Lioness shows grace and strength and Nala is probably the strongest physical character in the show. Nala overpowers Simba in many fights. There is also humor. Just when things are getting serious, there is humor to break things up a little bit."

The Memphis native and longtime DeSoto County resident now calls New York City home, where she has lived for the past 14 years.

Branan worked on Broadway in the show "Billy Elliott" and played in the "Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway," as well as acting and directing in many other productions.

"I try to book work here when I can," Branan said. "The pace of life, the hospitality, the kindness — it's incredible."

Christy Wilbanks, the show's producer, said the Lion King was chosen because it is popular with Mid-South audiences and the musical allows the talents of so many local children to be showcased.

"It's the first time it's been done in DeSoto County," Wilbanks said. "It was just released and we got the rights to do the junior show. We are the first ones in the DeSoto County area to put the production on. Whitney, our director, has treated the cast like little adults from the beginning. The dances they have learned are hard. I have been simply amazed at how hard the kids have worked."

Danielle Henderson of Memphis plays "Rafiki," a wise mandrill who acts as healer of the Pridelands and guides Simba on his journey home.

"I was online looking for auditions and DFT popped up as one of the best," said Henderson.

Henderson said taking part in the musical has given her a new perspective.

"I take away the message that you need to listen to your elders," Henderson said. "Rafiki plays a big role in that she provides wisdom to all the wise kings, especially giving Simba wisdom and courage to go back to the Pridelands and take over."

Stage manager Nicole Dasto said audiences are in for a treat.

"It's awesome," Dasto said of the production. "We've only had four weeks to put on this junior show. We normally have six to eight weeks to put on a production, so to have all of the kids learn all of their lines, choreography and their blocking in four weeks has been a challenge. Our set is awesome. We will have some projections and some rock pieces so that it will actually make you feel like you are walking in the Pridelands. Our costumes are fantastic as well."

Tickets are $15-$30. Purchase tickets at the Landers Center box office at 662-470-2131 or www.ticketmaster.com.

Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.​

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