When the stage musical 'The Lion King' opened in Sydney this week, FRANCES GRANT was there to talk to its New Zealand lead performers.

Under a star-filled African sky, a mighty lion looks out over the savannah. Below the fierce eyes and flaring mane is the face of the actor, full of passion, as he sings to his son explaining the big questions of life and death.

The two faces create a powerful, dual effect of an animal which is also human. The audience at this preview of the Sydney production of the hit Disney musical The Lion King is looking at the face of actor Jay Laga'aia and seeing a lion and a man simultaneously.

"Director Julie Taymor describes it as a double event," says Laga'aia in a break in rehearsing for the official opening of the show at Sydney's Capitol theatre on Thursday. "You see the mask and you see the human. What the mask can't give you the human can. What the human can't give you the mask can."


The mask atop the actor's head has another pleasing enhancement. "What you have is not a 6ft 1in (1.8m) character but an 8ft (2.4m) one," says Laga'aia with a distinct air of satisfaction.

The lion's mask is just one of many larger-than-life elements in a show which is the biggest, in terms of logistics, ever staged in Australia.

Based on the 1994 Disney animated movie of the same name and adapted by American Taymor for the stage, the visually spectacular production debuted on Broadway six years ago, winning effusive critical acclaim and garnering six Tonys, including best musical.

It has been seen by 18 million people worldwide and the Sydney production will be the ninth being performed internationally, in the US, Japan and Europe.

Taymor has drawn on traditional Asian theatre techniques using puppets, shadow puppetry and stylised masks. The show has a cast of 54, uses 387 costumes and 232 masks and puppets, from a tiny, 30cm-long mouse to gravity-defying giraffes 5m tall.

Many of the masks and puppets incorporate the actors into their structure: the face of Mufasa, the regal patriarch of the lion pride, is an electronically operated mask sitting atop Laga'aia's head. The intersection of human and animal means that the actor has two sets of facial expressions to control. The mask magnifies every movement of his head, Laga'aia explains.

If he holds his head too far forward the shadows on the mask make the king look as if he's weeping, so he must be careful to make sure it is upright and conveying the royal attitude of the alpha male.

The pride of the great lion is something Laga'aia is also feeling off-stage, however. The show's opening night will be a proud one for New Zealand, with three Kiwi actors in the leading roles: 21-year-old Aucklander Vince Harder is making his stage debut as the adult Simba, and Tyson Eketone - raised in Sydney but of Maori descent - will play the young Simba, one of four young actors rotating in the role as the lion cub who must come to terms with the death of his father and win his rightful place as leader of the pride.

The New Zealand connection doesn't end there: among the stars is Wellingtonian Jamie McGregor, who plays the comic relief, the meerkat Timon, and Cherine Peck, from Palmerston North, plays Shenzi. There are four New Zealanders among the multicultural cast, with members hailing from as far afield as Korea, South Africa and Britain.

Laga'aia's relationship with co-star Vince Harder is as paternal as that of his character. "Is my son here yet?" he asks at the start of the interview. "It's a great way to start a career," he notes of Harder landing the role.

Harder, who was working in a shoe department of Rebel Sport store in Auckland when he scored the role - "That's a good gig bro!" Laga'aia interjects - says the older actor has been invaluable in boosting his confidence and showing him the ropes.

The biggest challenge for the newcomer isn't in the physical demands of learning to move like a lion but in the singing, learning to make every word count. "It's feeling every word in a song and working out why I feel that way. And I thought [at the start] it was just a simple song. I'm tired out and we haven't even got to the chorus yet," says Harder.

Laga'aia says the most challenging thing about the show is adapting to working with four different child actors who play Simba, the lion cub. "Each of them - just like my own children - has their own idiosyncrasies and characters," says the father of five.

Children and the imagination of children are the most important elements of the show, says Laga'aia, who claims the most nerve-racking part of opening night will be performing in front of his own brood. "My concern in my 2-year-old daughter will get up and try to kill Scar [the brother who kills Mufasa to inherit his throne] when he kills me."

But this much more than a show for children, he says. For adults, it's a story about "a father and son relationship, which is sometimes not the easiest relationship. We try as parents to instil teachings in our children and sometimes you think, when are they going to get it?"

"It's not just about actors in lions' outfits. The idea is to create the essence of what a lion is: the regal nature, the authority and the viciousness. Mufasa is about the conservation of power, which is complementary to the youthful energy of Simba."

The Lion King is also a magnificent spectacle, the kind of theatre which can't help but draw the audience in, he says.

In the show's opening moments as the mist rolls away and a huge orange sun rises above the savannah, Rafiki, the wise old baboon, begins a spine-tingling chant, calling the animals to Pride Rock.

The stage fills with animals - towering giraffes on stilts, herds of delicate gazelles and cantering zebra, a cheetah lopes in and a one-man flock of birds takes centrestage. As the animals gather, the chant swells into the full chorus of Circle of Life.

Laga'aia warns there are two possible reactions to the sumptuous opening number. "If you don't cry for Circle of Life you will be sitting there like a stunned mullet."