September 22, 2019

Finding tikkun olam in ‘Lion King’

When Ben Lipitz trundles onto the stage as Pumbaa, the malodorous but genial warthog in the hit musical “The Lion King,” the character and his meerkat pal, Timon, stumble across Simba, the dejected lion cub who has fled his kingdom because he erroneously believes he has killed his father.

“You’ve got to put your behind in your past,” the malaprop-prone Pumbaa advises the cub. Then Timon and Pumbaa school Simba about their personal motto: “Hakuna matata— it means ‘no worries,’ ” Pumbaa explains as he and Timon burst into song. “I’m a sensitive soul, though I seem thick-skinned./And it hurt that my friends never stood downwind,” Pumbaa sings of his previous mentality. But now, he says, “Hakuna matata is our problem-free philosophy.”

Decked out in a fanciful costume featuring protuberating tusks and a 1-foot-high spiky wig made of yak- and horsehair, Lipitz provides much of the comic relief in “The Lion King,” Disney’s long-running and beloved mega-musical now at the Pantages Theatre through Jan. 12.

It’s Lipitz’s 11th year portraying Pumbaa on the show’s continuing national tours (he also played the role on Broadway in 2009) and he’s clocked well over 4,000 performances as Simba’s porcine sidekick. But he still delights in his time on stage. “The essence of Pumbaa is that he’s the walking embodiment of hakuna matata: Just live for the moment and don’t stress out,” Lipitz said. “He’s not a great character of action; he just goes with the flow. But he’s a great teammate, a great friend, a character who loves unconditionally, and these are all qualities we want to possess.  He’ll do whatever he’s asked by his friends, because that’s what you do for your buddies.”

Lipitz as Pumbaa

As for Lipitz’s own favorite sequence in the play, it’s the scene in which “Mufasa [Simba’s father] removes his royal headdress “to speak to the cub as a father and not as a king. Especially since I became a father, it’s the most emotional moment for me in the show.”

In “The Lion King’s” opening number, the characters celebrate what they refer to as “the circle of life.” Lipitz’s own memories of his son’s birth — just six months before his father’s death in 2005 — made that scene distinctly personal for the actor. “My dad was 81, he was on dialysis and had congestive heart failure, and he finally went into a hospice,” Lipitz recalled. “But we did have five days when we got to spend time with him down in Florida, and he got to hold his baby grandson. In that moment, I was looking back on what it meant to be a son and looking ahead to what it might be like to be a father, which I experienced in the most vivid way.”

The show also resonates for Lipitz, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Cherry Hill, N.J., where he was active in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and United Synagogue Youth and, for a time, aspired to become a rabbi. “It’s the idea of tikkun olam, of giving yourself over to something larger than yourself,” he said.  “Simba’s journey is about finding himself so he can take his place in his community, so he can lead and give back to his [fellow citizens].”

Lipitz does his part by reaching out to Jewish Federations in various cities on the tour, offering assistance for fundraising and other endeavors. He’s also a fundraising coordinator for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, having helped raise millions of dollars for the charity.

Now 49, Lipitz attended CalArts and starred in such productions as “The Producers” and “God of Carnage” as well as on episodes of TV shows like “The Sopranos” and “Law & Order”; his five auditions for “The Lion King” finally paid off 11 years ago.

“They were looking for a certain physical size; a lovable, gruff voice and demeanor; as well as a measure of heart,” he said.  “And I knew I could do that.”

Not that there aren’t challenges inherent in the role. Lipitz’s Pumbaa costume weighs 48 pounds — the heaviest in the show — and is 8 feet long and 4 feet wide. “It’s in two pieces: The torso, which has the ribs and hind legs, sits on my shoulders and waist like a harness,” he said. “Then the face is a mask that clips to that.”  Lipitz works with a physical therapist three times a week to prevent shoulder and back problems due to the cumbersome costume. “Fortunately I’ve avoided most of the major injuries sustained by previous Pumbaas,” he said.

He makes sure to keep his performance fresh for eight shows a week — even after more than a decade as the warthog. “It’s my sense of responsibility to make sure I’m creating the show as if for the first time every time I step on stage, and that I’m not phoning in a performance that’s tired or on autopilot,” he said. 

“ ‘The Lion King’ is the kind of theater that really does transform lives. It’s such a fantastic piece of storytelling, and I don’t take it for granted.”

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