Disney births the La Ballona Elementary theater program by shepherding “The Lion King”

By Brian Marks

La Ballona Elementary School students create set pieces for their production of “The Lion King,” part of Center Theatre Group’s inaugural Disney Musicals in Schools program
Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

Theater is a relatively new occurrence at Culver City’s La Ballona Elementary School. Though the arts aren’t completely unfamiliar to the students, their new production of “The Lion King” is the first school-wide musical they’ve staged. But this won’t be a mere trial run for future shows — in addition to stagings at the school, the students are performing a number from their production at the Ahmanson Theatre on Monday.

The songs from “The Lion King” are just as catchy as they were over 20 years ago, but the impetus for La Ballona choosing it had to do with their partner, the Disney Musicals in Schools (DMIS) program. The program pairs five Los Angeles County schools with theater professionals from the Center Theatre Group.

The goals of Disney’s theater program are far reaching — they’re not just putting on a single show, but training teachers to put on their own programs in future years. “The Lion King” is just the start for La Ballona.

Christine Abraham, one of the teaching artists working with Disney and Center Theatre Group, has been making 90-minute visits to La Ballona for the past 17 weeks.

“Our main job is actually to train the school team, not the students,” she says shortly before the first dress run-through. “We’re here to teach the school team how to put on a musical in six months, and teach them how to be directors, choreographers, musical directors. Of course, we teach the kids along the way, too.”

The first run-through has a predictable series of hurdles. The actors playing the lions are have a hard time keeping their hands off their brand new tails, and one half of the essential Timon and Pumbaa duo is absent.

Yet there are also some vivacious performances, particularly from young and grown-up versions of Simba, as well as from his suave nemesis, Scar. Fourth-grader Randy Depaz plays Scar with a perpetual smile, as if he’s amused by his own evil.

“It’s like an experience, because it’s not something you would regularly get to do,” says Randy about playing a villain. “Now I have to be mean and evil to other people.”

Even for students with smaller roles, “The Lion King” offers a chance to try something new and meet new people. Luna Sands is part of the ensemble of villagers who populate the show.

“At the beginning I was a little bit upset that I didn’t get a bigger role,” says Luna after rehearsal. “But then I was happy because it was my first play and I appreciated my role.”

Putting on a musical is a new experience for most of the students, but it’s just as fresh for the teachers learning how to put on shows. Brittney Welch normally teaches second grade, but for the last few months she has moonlighted as stage manager for “The Lion King.” The Disney program is designed to show her and other teachers how to put these productions on all by themselves.

“Some teachers took on shows themselves, but there wasn’t a schoolwide dramatic arts program,” she says after rehearsal. “This grant really filled in that gap for us and has started to take teachers out of the classroom and has broadened the scope of what they can do.”

What comes next year is mostly uncertain, but Welch is sure of one thing: they want to put on another show.

See “The Lion King” at 7 p.m. Friday or 4 and 6:30 p.m. Saturday (May 18 and 19) at La Ballona Elementary School, 10915 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $5 for children and $10 for adults. Monday’s performance at the Ahmanson Theatre is invitation-only. Reach the school at (310) 842-4334.