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After 8,842 performances, Busch Gardens' longest running show, KaTonga, closes Monday

TAMPA

In the crowded backstage dressing room at Busch Gardens' Moroccan Palace, Girl 4 snaps a wreath of fabric vines around her neck and leans into the mirror. Her second show of the day ended an hour ago. The next one starts soon. She powders her face, repaints the emerald stripes on her cheeks, brightens the golden circles. "Thirty minutes to showtime!" someone shouts. Other dancers don't seem to hear. They keep reading, embroidering, texting. Girl 4 grabs her owl headdress and heads for the door. She needs time alone to check her props and stretch. To leave herself behind.

For six years, for as many as five performances a day, she has danced on this amusement park stage. She has played every role in the show: a leafy nymph, a wise turtle, a hulking stork. She learned to leap in a bullfrog suit, tumble in a monkey mask, lumber like an elephant. The caterpillar is the hardest.

On this Thursday in September, she walks past the other performers, into the hall, and stops. There, on the wall, is the poster for KaTonga: Musical Tales from the Jungle. The stage manager tacked it up that morning.

He wants the cast to sign it. After 8,842 performances, Busch Gardens' longest running show will close today.

Girl 4 shakes her head. When she auditioned, she was 22 and had no idea what she was getting into. She didn't know she would grow up on that wide stage, or find love in that fake forest.

She never thought her dream could last this long.

• • •

Dreama Davidson, 28, is Girl 4. Ever since she can remember, all she has wanted to do is dance. Her parents signed her up for tap when she was 3. At Blake High, she took every dance class offered.

At 18, she signed on with an Atlanta talent agency. Opened for Brandy and Destiny's Child, backed up Brooke Hogan. Mostly, she taught kids jazz and hip-hop at the Y.

Dreama was back in Tampa in 2004, working at Old Navy, when a friend told her Busch Gardens was auditioning dancers.

So she showed up, thinking she'd be strutting in a street show, sweating by the aviary or something. It didn't matter. If she could get paid to dance …

• • •

The Moroccan Palace is the biggest theater at Busch Gardens, with 1,200 seats and a long, deep stage. For years, it housed an ice-skating show — right between the gorilla reserve and the chimpanzees.

But around 2002, park executives decided to do "a more ambitious, Broadway-style show," said Nancy Hutson, vice president for entertainment.

The park's musical director came up with the concept: an African-themed extravaganza about four storytellers offering animal tales. In Swahili, he told executives, a place where people tell stories is called KaTonga.

The park hired the man who had won a Tony for designing lighting for the Lion King on Broadway. And the guy who created the animal masks and puppets for the same show. They spent two years piecing together the original production.

In 2004, they hired a cast of 50 — including a dancer who used to work at Old Navy.

"It was surreal," Dreama said. "I wasn't going to be street dancing outside. I was going to be part of something ground-breaking and amazing."

She doubted herself at first, but the director wouldn't let her quit. "Dreama stayed later than anyone, she'd never stop, never even take a break," Hutson said.

She signed up for African dance classes, went to workshops, practiced at home. By opening day, she had learned her own role — plus the other nine parts. She didn't make first-string and wasn't scheduled to perform.

But two hours before curtain, the stage manager called her aside. One of the grasshoppers was sick. Had she ever danced on stilts? She hadn't. Was she willing to learn?

That afternoon, in front of more than 1,000 people, she bounced across the stage on 2-foot-tall springy stilts called PowerSkips, shouldering a 35-pound shell. Her green-striped face beamed in the bright lights.

The guy running the sound board noticed. They started talking backstage. In December, after more than 4,000 shows together, he asked Girl 4 to be his bride.

• • •

Davidson tugs at her unitard and turns from the poster where so many of her friends have already penned their names. They feel like her family. In six years, more than 300 people passed through the cast.

Some left to go back to school. Others went onto bigger roles: a dancer for Disney Hong Kong, a chorus member for a touring Lion King, a Michael Douglas movie.

Girl 4 had hung on at the Moroccan Palace, risen to dance captain, hired replacements for those who had moved on.

Today, when KaTonga closes, Davidson's fiance will remain at Busch Gardens, running sound for other shows. She auditioned for the next musical, Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy, but wasn't chosen.

So she will work backstage during Howl-O-Scream. After that? Who knows. Her kids at the Y want her back. Plus, she has a wedding to plan.

"I'm sad it's over. But a little excited," she said, hurrying down the hall. "I know there's another part for me to play."

Fifteen minutes until showtime. She opens the stage door, picks up the caterpillar costume. For the last show, she has to play Kopopo — the most grueling part.

She has to slide into a Slinky-like tube covered with green cloth, stretch her arms above her head the whole time she's dancing, keep the caterpillar's wide eyes open until, at the end of the scene, she rolls under a giant leaf to rest …

And emerges transformed, soaring across the stage on wide silk wings.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

THE CURTAIN CLOSES

KaTonga has its final performances today at 12:30, 2:30 and 4:30 at Busch Gardens in Tampa. Please see buschgardens.com for more information.

Final shows

KaTonga has its final performances today at 12:30 p.m., 2:30 and 4:30 at Busch Gardens in Tampa. Visit

buschgardens.com for more information.

After 8,842 performances, Busch Gardens' longest running show, KaTonga, closes Monday 09/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, September 6, 2010 12:26pm]

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