It's a jungle in there, behind the scenes at The Lion King's new home. By Alexandra Roginski.
Timon stands limply on a piece of wood in a corridor, shrouded by a beige sheet. Only the label at his feet betrays this bony shape to be the streetwise meerkat whose capering will set The Lion King's audience into ripples of laughter in an hour's time.
With the cover removed, his goggle eyes stare at the wall, the shoes attached to the back of his feet a reminder that he's a puppet dependent for life on the comic acumen of an actor.
Timon is just one of the crucial elements of the hit musical finally making it to Melbourne after its 1997 Broadway opening and which can be found deconstructed in the warren of corridors backstage at the Regent Theatre.
Puppets, of which more than 232 appear in the show, are squashed into every corner. Giraffes, 5.5 metres tall, lean dismembered against a wall, awaiting actors to connect their legs to their torsos and make them totter across the stage.
Past the wildebeest masks ceremoniously mounted in the wings drift strains of African drums, tech calls and stray choruses sung by cast members as they stretch on yoga mats under the stage lights.
With only one hour until the curtain rises, the performers measure their energy, lolling on the floor, some in brightly coloured tights, others already wearing dramatic make-up.
Officially opening on Thursday, The Lion King has been in various stages of rehearsal for a month and is now previewing. After a 20-month sell-out run in Sydney, the show is a well-oiled machine geared to achieve the level of quality and detail set by Disney in staging its multi-million dollar franchise, which sees it playing simultaneously in nine cities around the world.
"This gazelle's just had a hole in it," says mask and puppet technician David Cauchi, holding up one of the puppets used in the opening 'Circle of Life' sequence. It sports a patch only about the size of a 50-cent piece on its smooth, carbon-fibre veneer, but all nicks, no matter how tiny, must be tended by the puppet hospital.
"You hear a nasty crack," says Cauchi of the more dramatic puppet accidents. "They can usually go on for another show, but then whenever we can get them down to the workshop and patch them up, we'll send the spare up while the other one's being fixed, so no-one's missing a gazelle on their hand."
br> Down the corridor, the head of make-up and wigs Giuseppe Cannas agrees that his job is as much about continuity and quality control as creativity. His tasks, aside from applying wigs and make-up, include ordering and sterilising the make-up brushes of the 56 cast members (each principal has about 10).
Under the bright lights of the make-up room, where pop tunes stream from a radio as a reminder of the world outside, actor Terry Bader sits poker-faced as an artist buries him beneath blue and white face-paint to create the prudish hornbill character Zazu. To maintain the uniformity of The Lion King brand, Cannas was instructed by associate hair and make-up designer Carol Hancock, and has trained his four full-time staff in brush techniques specific to the show.
In the wardrobe maintenance room, labels mark the endless containers lining the walls: velcro, fabric off-cuts, sockettes, underwear. Eight shows a week mean head of wardrobe Darryl Myott and his three staff are kept busy repairing damaged costumes. The 16 dressers ensure that cast members don't miss their queues in the Regent's three-level backstage area.
"We've actually got one person to stay on stage, and one person to stay underneath to make sure that everyone is changed, because some people are still turning the wrong way," says Myott, "If they don't get on, we're in trouble."
Although Cannas worked on The Matrix and Star Wars, in the windowless den of backstage, with one eye wavering over his make-up artists bringing life to what were once two-dimensional cartoon characters, he says, "This is the best job in the world."
The Lion King opens at the Regent Theatre on Thursday.