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The City Journals

Pride Rock roars to life at Wasatch Jr. High

Mar 11, 2018 02:50PM ● By Travis Barton

Young Simba (Jackson Staker) speaks with Mufasa (Brandt Bosworth) during “The Lion King Jr." (Travis Barton/City Journals)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]


Natalie Dallimore knew she had big shoes to fill.

The previous drama teacher at Wasatch Jr. High had taught there for 20 years before retiring in 2017. With Dallimore entering her first year at the school as the drama teacher, coming from Valley Jr. High and charter schools prior to that, she wanted to do something the school had never done before.

She wanted a show that would excite the kids, and considered “The Lion King Jr.” A few days after entertaining the thought, she saw the show at the Sandy Arts Guild confirming her idea.

“At first I wasn't sure the kids would like it, now they love it,” Dallimore said, wearing a yellow “The Lion King Jr.” sweatshirt with her title down the sleeve: director.

Dallimore will oversee 100 cast members and 20 stage crew as they perform “The Lion King Jr.” at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 16; Saturday, March 17 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Monday, March 19 at 7 p.m.  

After months and months of preparation, the cast and crew are raring to go. “They’re so excited and just ready to do it,” said Dallimore, whose own career has included acting in movies and commercials.

Based on the famous Disney film and successful Broadway musical that depicts a Shakespearean tragedy on the Savannah in Africa, Dallimore wanted the show to be a junior version of Broadway. Retaining the “cartoon, animated feel” was important to her, as was representing Africa in a show that features five different languages, all sung by the students.

The show includes African fabric used to make dresses and dashikis for the costumes, made by a parent for the show. “I wanted to capture the beauty of Africa,” Dallimore said.

While the characters on the show are lions, she said, kids relate well to animal characters and the messages they share.

“You cannot look at this show as a bunch of animals,” she said. “We are telling the story of love, honor, commitment through animals. It’s just an avenue to tell the story.”

AJ Wankier, a seventh-grader who plays Zazu, said the show’s message applies to life as well as theater.

“Everybody is all in this great circle and we all have a part to play no matter how big or small in this world,” he said. “You could be a lead, an ensemble member, but you’re still the same amount of equal. It’s all just family.”

To tell that story well, Dallimore has utilized a large family. In addition to a parent costumer, she had teachers Rylee Carling (co-music director), Austin Thompson (co-music director) and Sarah Whiting (choreographer) ask if they could help. The art department got involved creating a life-size silhouette of a giraffe that decorates part of the auditorium. Designs for the posters, banners and sweatshirts were done by students who won art contests. Students from Skyline High help in the technical booth.

“We’ve really gotten the school and the faculty just really engaged,” Dallimore said. “I want the kids to feel a sense of ownership.”

Eighth-grader Mary Lehnardt, whose brother was a lead in the show last year, has performed in ensemble roles herself at the school. This year she plays Nala and noticed the sense of pride she takes with the show.

“It’s different to not be in the ensemble and it’s definitely more stressful, but you kind of invest more in the show and you care about it more,” she said. “Then you feel more proud when it’s incredible.”

While AJ has performed in the show before as a hyena (at the Sandy performance that Dallimore witnessed last year), it’s the first big role for eighth-grader Finn Reilly, who plays Rafiki, a role she’s wanted since 2008 when she saw the Broadway show.

“Rafiki was always one of my favorite characters,” Finn said, having grown up watching the Disney movie. “He’s just very playful and my first musical I ever saw was actually ‘(The) Lion King.’ I saw Rafiki up there and I was like, ‘I wanna be Rafiki.’”

It was the part Finn auditioned for. For Ashton Pike, an eighth-grader who plays Simba, the audition process was “freaky.” But he had a different feeling when he got the part.

“It was kind of a shock,” he said. “Like a calm, not yelling (sort of thing). Then I go home and talk to my parents and freak out.”

Ashton said people will enjoy the scene with Mufasa and a young Simba as they sing “They Live in You.”

“I just like how (the actors) work together and they actually look like father and son,” he said. “I think they would make most of the mothers cry.”

Dallimore, who has directed shows for over 10 years, is using understudies with the show. Something the school has never done before, but for Dallilmore it was common practice.

“I wanted to develop them because lots of leads are in eighth grade so I want those seventh-graders for the understudies,” she said. “They’ve been here and worked and will be able to step into those roles next year.”

She also highlighted how it gives the show coverage in case a student misses a show. Two years ago, Principal John Anderson stepped in to play the wizard in “Wizard of Oz” because the student became ill.

Understudies will perform the Saturday matinee show.

The biggest challenge, Dallimore said, might also be the show’s greatest strength. Students are “super talented,” so they are involved in many activities outside the musical.

Mary is the student body secretary and historian, dances and plays the cello. AJ sings in the One Voice Children’s Choir, plays the trumpet in both the school jazz band and the Little Big Band based in American Fork, does voice and piano lessons and is starting rehearsals for “Shrek Jr.” with the Sandy Arts Guild.

“I kind of get used to it,” he says of the workload. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t enjoy it.”

With so many students involved, Dallimore notes it is a double-edged sword.

“It’s a blessing and a curse where they’re so talented, but then we’re trying to deal with kids being gone because of other commitments,” she said.

But, she says, the greatest part is the kids. Dallimore estimates the past two months have been 70–80-hour weeks.

“I do it because I love them and I do it because I believe in the power of theater,” she said.

That feeling is reciprocated as cast members appreciate the atmosphere Dallimore brings.

“She’s great,” AJ said of his teacher. “She’s a really good director. I think she’s done a lot of really good things with this show. It feels like ‘(The) Lion King.’”

Maybe those large shoes won’t feel so big next year.