Eighteen years after opening on Broadway, “The Lion King” is still roaring through theaters around the world. Broadway’s highest grossing musical, it’s been translated into eight different languages and seen by more than 80 million people. Leading the current national tour is Chicago native Aaron Nelson, who plays Simba. Nelson shared his thoughts about acting, the circle of life, and being back in his hometown for the production running at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Jan. 17.
Make It Better: How does it feel being back in Chicago?
Aaron Nelson: It feels great to be home. I grew up on the South Side and graduated from Columbia College, but the road is basically my home now. I’ve missed the people and food in Chicago, especially the deep-dish pizza! It’s also great to be performing at the Cadillac Palace, the theatre where I was once an usher, seeing shows for free! It’s also where I saw my first Broadway show, which just happened to be “The Lion King” in 2005.
Did you always want to be an actor?
As a child, I wanted to be an athlete, then I started getting interested in the arts as a teenager. I studied voice at Merit School of Music and ballet at CMDC (Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center). Barack Obama was actually in the audience of my very first ballet performance. I’ve also done some acting in Chicago, at the American Theater Company. I think Chicago theater is the best in the world!
What are the challenges in playing the starring role of Simba?
You have to treat your body like an athlete, but there’s no off-season. I have to swing onto the stage on a vine! There’s a ton of running and jumping in my role. It’s definitely helped to have an athletic background.
This isn’t your first time performing with Disney, is it?
No, it’s not. I did the College Program in 2009, performing in costume as Goofy, Tigger, Captain Hook, the Red Power Ranger. It was one of the best experiences of my life! That’s also not the only time I’ve performed at a theme park. Closer to home, I spent the summer of 2010 as the Green Lantern at Six Flags Great America, and also sang and danced in a show for Fright Fest.
What’s life like for you on the road?
My wife and three-year-old son travel with me. This production is touring North America and we’ve had an amazing experience. Vancouver and California have been two of my favorites. I’d heard Vancouver is a beautiful city, but there’s nothing like seeing it in person.
What are the life lessons you’ve gained from playing Simba?
It reminds me of the importance of being a good father and the impact it has when there’s an absence of a father figure. For the audience, I’d say the big takeaway is that it’s never too late to get back up.
“The Lion King” runs through Jan. 17 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago. Tickets are $35-180 and can be purchased online.
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