`Lion King' & I

Prince George's Kiah Victoria beams with pride - and glee - at her role in the Broadway hit.

August 06, 2002|By Tori Campion | Tori Campion,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Wait till her friends start asking 10-year-old Kiah Victoria what she did over the summer.

Tonight, the girl from Prince George's County, whose biggest role before this was a bit part in Cinderella, will stand on a Broadway stage and debut as Young Nala - best friend of lead character Simba - in Disney's The Lion King.

How she fares before the public remains to be seen. But during a recent rehearsal at the New Amsterdam Theatre on West 42nd Street, her fellow actors were ready with the accolades. "She's amazing. A beautiful girl," said cast member Tony James. "She's a little Toni Braxton." Adds dancer Dennis Lue, "She got pipes."

Belting out "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," Kiah's larger-than-life voice - impressive even without a microphone - flies out from her slight build and projects to the middle of the theater. "She can sing," her father, Adruma Victoria, says with unmistakable pride. "She's beautiful, she works hard, and she's enthusiastic. I guess I'd better stop there."

Everybody look left, Kiah sings alongside fellow rookie cast member Derek Taylor, 12. Everybody look right. Everywhere you look, I'm standing in the spotlight. And make no mistake: She sings the passage as though she really means it.

It is hard not to notice just how grown up this 10-year-old is. Even when she's not needed on stage, she's off to the side practicing her moves, waiting patiently to be called back for more instruction. "She's very focused. She learns quickly," says resident dance supervisor Ruthlyn Salomans.

But on stage or off, rehearsing or not, Kiah has a smile as wide as the Cheshire Cat's. On this July afternoon, just two weeks before her debut, the soon-to-be-fifth-grader is energized and completely professional as she listens to direction. Salomans explains how far she can move around the stage - essential information, given the intricate backdrops that are constantly being lowered and raised during the two hour, 40 minute show. Kiah pays attention and does what she's told.

And there's more to learn. The big challenge today is learning how to navigate the extremely colorful, 6-foot-tall ostriches Nala and Simba ride in one scene. The ostriches are controlled by the actors inside them but have pegs on the back that the lion cubs climb. Although game, Kiah's not always fast enough. "One [time], the music started, and I was still climbing up," Kiah recalls with a laugh. "Then I had to get down and do it again."

During a break in the rehearsal, Kiah meets many of her fellow cast members for the first time, grinning widely and waving a fast, almost-shy smile. Dressed in a pink shirt, white pants and a corset (one of her costume pieces), she seems more like, for a split second, Kiah the child, not Kiah the professional - just an average girl who returned to New York from Maryland the previous day, after spending three days playing in a pool with her friends.

But the low-pressure respite doesn't last. After a five-minute break, just enough time for some water and a little candy, it's back to the business of rehearsing. And when rehearsing, Kiah is a far purr from a child.

Practice makes perfect

Since July 2, Kiah has been practicing up to six times a week, usually for a couple of hours each day. At the first rehearsal, she and Derek, as a young Simba, reviewed the story "so we could, like, get into it. And we went over our lines and things. Just, like, reviewed the whole thing. Kind of did that for a while, and then we actually worked on things. And we're still working on it."

Suspecting their daughter had talent, Kiah's father and mother, Fiona Victoria, got her an agent back in February. Clinton-based Linda Townsend told them about the The Lion King auditions, which are held continually. Kiah traveled to New York three times between March and May for auditions before getting the nod.

"I went through the hallways and shouted out, `Kiah got Broadway!' " her beaming father recalled. "I'm very proud and very grateful. It's definitely a blessing. You live vicariously through your kids."

Not everything has come easily. At the beginning of the show, she plays a baby elephant, which she finds a little complicated. "It's just, the suit is heavy, but I still like it."

She's also having a little difficulty with some of the lyrics. The music mixes modern, Caribbean, pop and African influences. "I mostly get mixed up with the elephant part," Kiah says, "at the African words and stuff. But that's pretty much it."

Kiah really enjoys the graveyard scene, where she and Simba have a scary meeting with a couple of hungry hyenas. She likes the part with the ostriches, where the two young cubs rebel against their escort - the ever-comical bird Zazu - and sing about Simba becoming king. "That's really fun."

In fact, fun is the operative word with Kiah, who says the extra work the show requires is no problem, because other shows "are not as fun as The Lion King. Since it's so fun, it's, like, easier."

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