A Detroit stage favorite roars back: 'The Lion King'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

When it comes to unique group chats, actor Gerald Ramsey is in one unlike any other. He's part of a group of performers who've all played the iconic role of Mufasa in the beloved Broadway musical, "The Lion King," and keep in touch.

Ramsey, who grew up on a small island in American Samoa before eventually finding his way to Polynesian dancing in Hawaii and then "The Lion King," made it a point to reach out to these actors who've all played the same role. He even chatted with the actor who originally played the beloved role when it premiered on Broadway in 1997.

"There's a responsiblity that I feel to honor them and see where they came from with the role," said Ramsey, speaking by phone during a chilly tour stop in Nashville.

Actor Gerald Ramsey, who grew up in American Samoa, plays Mufasa in "The Lion King." He said the role and show has even more meaning now because of the pandemic.

Ramsey will take everything he's learned and apply it when "The Lion King" returns to Detroit for a three-week stay starting Thursday, Jan. 27, at the Detroit Opera House. It runs through Feb. 20.

It's the fifth time "The Lion King" has played in Detroit. It first premiered at Detroit's Masonic Temple in 2004. The beloved musical has now had 25 global productions and been seen by nearly 110 million theater-goers since it premiered on Broadway nearly 25 years ago.

There's a reason audiences love it so much, especially Detroit audiences, said Scott Myers, Broadway in Detroit's marketing director.

"It is a really great show that inspires everyone from many different backgrounds and every age," said Myers.

For Ramsey, who has played Mufasa for five years, it's a musical about family, lineage, service, legacy and how we are connected to loved ones even after they pass on.

"The Lion King" returns to the Detroit Opera House for a three-week run starting Jan. 27.

Ramsey, who also played Mufasa the last time "The Lion King" was in Detroit, said the way he played the character before is "definitely not" how he plays him now. And the pandemic is one reason why.

"Relating to the songs in a different way and relating to the other actors and what they bring, you discover these new parts of the show, or in the lines, or in the song, that didn't resonate with you previously," said Ramsey. "Especially after what's happened this past two years (with COVID), the show has taken on a deeper meaning for me personally."

Ramsey never expected he'd one day play such a beloved role. A former dancer at Honolulu's Polynesian Cultural Center, Ramsey, who attended college in Hawaii, actually only tried out for "The Lion King" after a friend finally convinced him to go.

"'Lion King' came to town and shows hardly ever come to Hawaii so for 'Lion King' to come, it was a really big deal," remembers Ramsey. "They ended up having an open audition and it was advertised all over the newspaper and the radio. I didn't pay any attention because I never thought about being in a Broadway show."

"The Lion King," one of the most beloved musicals of all times, features music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice and book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi.

At first, Ramsey said he made several excuses to his friend about why he couldn't audition — the audition was too far, he didn't have a headshot — until she convinced him with one last offer: she'd take him to a new Korean restaurant that had just opened afterward. He was sold.

"Free food? I'm there for free food," Ramsey says with a laugh.

When he got the call back for another audition, Ramsey, who was actually in graduate school at the time, said he was "confused." He ended up singing for casting directors in a Skype call and eventually got the role.

Still, he admits he felt insecure at first about his lack of professional experience. Ramsey remembers a reassuring conversation he had with a fellow cast member, Tshidi Manye, an actress from South Africa who played Rafiki.

"She reminded me, she said 'Baby, we come from cultures that we tell stories through song and dance and that's exactly what musical theater is,'" Ramsey said. "Just because we have it in our bones and our blood and not on our degree, it doesn't make us any less legitimate."

To play the character of Mufasa, Ramsay draws on his own grandfather, Alaiafune Faitala, a farmer in American Samoa. 

"Mufasa's way of being a king in the Pride Lands is through service and that's why he's so respected. He uses his position to serve the Pride Lands and the pride," said Ramsey. "I feel like my grandfather was the same way. It's easy to have a position of power and to take advantage of it for self-gain. I feel like my grandfather was the opposite. Any time he was given stuff, he'd always give it away."

Ramsey said he can relate to the one song Mufasa sings, "He lives in you." He said that's a belief in Samoan culture.

"Even though he (his grandfather) passed when I was 12, he's still such a part of me and everything I do," he said.

And now, returning to play Mufas after an 18-month break because of the pandemic, Ramsey said he feels even more connected to it. 

"One of the powerful things about 'Lion King' is that it does address our loved ones passing on," said Ramsey. "That's something that's happened over the last couple years with me personally and our cast...It's definitely more of an emotional experience."

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

'The Lion King'

Thursday through Feb. 20 

at the Detroit Opera House.

Tickets start at $25.

Go to  https://www.broadwayindetroit.com/.