By Abi Celaya
Darian Sanders and Michelle Scalpone are obsessed with “The Lion King.”
They call the musical — which comes to ASU Gammage from Tuesday, July 5, to Sunday, July 31 — beautiful, stunning, and a story for all ages.
“I have been obsessed with big cats and lions my entire life,” says Sanders, who plays Simba.
“I named my first dog Nala, and this was 15 years ago. I was obsessed with the animated feature. I absolutely loved it. It’s been cool to come full circle.”
Broadway’s “The Lion King” hit stages for the first time in 1997, three years after Disney’s animated film was released. Since then, it has garnered more than 70 theatrical awards.
With roots in Kentucky, Sanders joined the cast of “The Lion King” in September 2019. He heard about the role after singing the national anthem at a basketball game. And, thanks to his former manager, he was connected with “The Lion King” producers.
He was hired as a cover for Simba and was in the ensemble for the Broadway show. Last year, he landed the role of Simba on the national tour.
Sanders says, in some ways, he’s similar to his character.
“Everybody has a little bit of Simba in them,” he says.
“That story and that journey are personalized for everyone when they come and watch the show.”
The strongest connection between Sanders and Simba rests in their faith.
“My faith is what grounds me,” says Sanders, who also works as a worship leader.
“For Simba, Mufasa has told him that the kings of the past are who he can rest on and who he can call upon, and I say, ‘Man, that’s awesome.’”
Sanders, who made his theatrical debut at Lexington Theater Co., says audiences should keep an eye on the opening scene, “The Circle of Life.”
“There’s something about being there in the theater and having Rafiki do that opening call,” Sanders says.
“That just shifts and changes something in your heart, and it brings you back to the first moment you ever saw the animated feature.”
An East Tucson native, Scalpone is the assistant stage manager for “The Lion King.” She speaks to the joy of working on such a large-scale production.
She fell in love with the magic of stage management at a young age when she attended a production of “Beauty and the Beast.”
“I remember more things that happened in that wing than what happened onstage,” Scalpone says.
“I immediately went to my middle school like, ‘How do I do that?’ I staged my way through high school and went to college for it and then I went to Juilliard working professionally, and now I work for Disney,” Scalpone says.
She started with the legendary company 10 days before the pandemic put its clamp on the world.
She was working on “Love Life” for Encores at City Center when she got a text from her mentor asking her if she wanted to go on tour for “The Lion King.” Scalpone interviewed, and two days later she was hired.
Scalpone — who travels by car so she can sightsee — agrees with Sanders that the opening scene is moving.
“I’ve been working here, technically, for two years,” she says. “‘The Circle of Life’ still brings me to tears because it is just so beautiful.”
She says her favorite line in the performance is, “The past can hurt, but the way I see it, you can either run from it or you can learn from it.”
Sanders and Scalpone say they believe “The Lion King” is a show for people of all ages.
He says anyone who has a pulse, heartbeat and breath in their lungs needs to see “The Lion King.”
“It is phenomenally great, and it is timeless,” Sanders says.
Scalpone was quick to add that the show isn’t just for kids.
“The messages are so universal and make you feel like it is an individual story being told just to you,” Scalpone says.
“The Lion King” is about inner strength and being OK with your journey, she adds.
“The aspect of redemption” is important, Sanders adds.
“There is nothing you can do or a spot you can go too far that you can’t come back and be redeemed from.”
“The Lion King”
WHEN: Various times Tuesday, July 5, to Sunday, July 31
WHERE: ASU Gammage,
1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe
COST: Tickets start at $75