Thursday, November 17, 2011

Q&A with Tonnocus McClain from the touring production of "The Lion King"

Even after a year as an ensemble member in “The Lion King,” Tonnocus McClain is still amazed by the sheer scope of the musical. At 14 years old, the musical continues to set the standard for big-budget Broadway musicals, drawing regular, sold-out audiences for its touring shows and giving theater a degree of accessibility and commercialism that’s kept the craft alive.
McClain, who attended high school in Colorado Springs, chatted about his history with the touring production, as well as the elements that have kept him a part of the cast.

Can you talk about how you made the voyage from your high school days in Colorado Springs to the touring production of “The Lion King”?

I lived in L.A. for 14 years. Now I’m living out of two suitcases on the road, and I’ve had my one-year  anniversary (on “The Lion King).

How has it been picking up and adopting a mobile lifestyle?

Luckily for me, because I come from the military brat background, it wasn’t completely new.
From a very early age I was seeing that what is in front of me isn’t all there is. In that sense, I was better prepared. Having said that, I was in L.A., pretty much stationary for 14 years.
There was definitely some adjustment involved. When I look around at the other possible touring situations, this one is more ideal. We’re never in a place shorter for than for three months at a time.
That’s a very different touring experience than if you’re in a tour that’s one city a night.
I couldn’t imagine that.

Are you going to take the stay in Denver as chance to reconnect with high school buddies from Colorado Springs?

Definitely. Through the magic of facebook, we’ve remained in each other’s lives. It will be great to break bread with my old buddies. We’re going to be here for almost a month at this point. I’ll be doing that as much as possible.

Does the staying power of “The Lion King” surprise you?
I’ve been a fan of it since it first opened. I remember listening to the CD the first year it opened, and14 years later, there are other tours that are in town for two, three days, trying to cobble together that schedule.
The “Lion King” can sit in a place … and enjoy performing to near capacity audiences every night. There’s a reason for that.

Even at 14 years old, the musical still rivals other professional touring productions in its sheer scope and size. As a performer, how would you characterize being in a show that has such epic costumes, sets and production values?

I’ve been in lots of musicals throughout my career, but nothing at this level. There’s something about being hunched over in a hyena costume … while you’re running around up and down stairs. There is something that is indescribable about that experience.
The puppetry aspect was the most difficult aspect because it was the most foreign part.
Acting, dancing, singing – these are things that you can go to school for, but puppetry, learning how to be a rhino behind, or making the elephant come to life … It’s so very precise.

After being in the show for a year, has the effect worn off at all?
The way I gauge my career is, do something as long as it’s making you happy.
I plan on being with the show for quite a while. I see a lot of potential for what I can bring.
There is something indescribable about the song “Circle of Life.”
I’ve seen it from both the audience point of view. There’s something about walking down the aisle … and being surrounded by people with expressions of such joy and wonder.
The number is about something that we can all relate to. I try to take a moment and appreciate the wonder that I get to be a part of it eight times a week.

After being in the ensemble for a year, do you ever long for the chance to do theater that’s more minimalistic? For example, do you ever find yourself itching to perform in a production of “Waiting for Godot”?

“The Lion King” is nothing if it isn’t big. I think it’s also very important to find side projects as a performer.
We’re all very complicated … There are always opportunities for you to stretch your wings in other directions.
We’ll perform benefits probably every three cities.
I’m a songwriter. I can constantly create. There are improv classes, tumbling classes – there’s always an opportunity to pour a few more ingredients into the stew.

One of the most stunning effects in the show is the way giant wooden pieces come together to form Mufasa’s face. Does the impact change when you’re backstage and get to see how it’s done?

I remember the first time I saw that as an audience member; it was like electricity.
I saw it many many, many times after that – every single time it was still potent and powerful.
It takes the magic away when you see how the sausage is made. Having said that, when you are out in the audience … Even though how I know how the sausage is made, it’s still just as strong and just as powerful.

“The Lion King” will run at the Buell Theatre in Denver until Dec. 4. For tickets, call 303-893-4100 or log on to