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"The Lion King' will prance onto Tampa stage in 2002-03

The Broadway smash will join two other Disney musicals, Aida and Beauty and the Beast, on the playbill at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

Pride Rock is coming to Tampa Bay.

The Lion King, still the toughest ticket on Broadway almost four years after it opened, will have a seven-week engagement in December 2002 and January 2003 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

"It's huge. It is just huge," said TBPAC president Judith Lisi. "I would say it's certainly as big as Phantom of the Opera."

Today, Disney Theatricals is announcing dates for the long-awaited U.S. national tour of The Lion King, which originates in Denver in spring 2002. Another Disney musical, Aida, also will have a two-week engagement in the fall of the 2002-03 season at TBPAC. A third Disney show, Beauty and the Beast, will return next season.

Lion King director Julie Taymor's fantastic mix of puppetry, masks and actor-dancers replicating animals calls for special staging. In New York, there are drummers in side boxes of the New Amsterdam Theatre and processions of animals down the center aisles. Where will the animals walk in TBPAC's Morsani Hall, which has only side aisles?

"They're going to walk where they can," Lisi said. "We have big aisles. They said the same thing about Cats _ "How is Cats going to work on the road?' _ and somehow it worked."

Along with The Lion King in New York, two other productions are playing extended runs in Los Angeles and Toronto. The tour headed for Tampa Bay will probably perform for up to eight weeks. It will play a multiweek run at Fort Lauderdale's Broward Center for the Performing Arts beginning in October 2002.

The Disney tours are being announced early because they will affect subscription sales for TBPAC's 2001-02 Broadway season, whose entire lineup is to be released Sunday. Subscribers have priority for renewals and additional tickets, so next season's sales stand to be boosted by people positioning themselves for good seats to The Lion King the following season. It's a marketing model based on the first tour of The Phantom of the Opera a decade ago.

"Phantom was an incredible catalyst for getting people involved in theater again in a major way," Lisi said. "It helps elevate your subscriptions overall, and I'm assuming that same thing will happen this year."

The Broadway series now has about 11,000 subscribers, down from a peak of about 12,000 when Phantom first played TBPAC. "I would think it would probably hit 12,000 again," Lisi said.

Aida is also a strong draw, continuing to play to virtually full houses a year after opening on Broadway. Loosely based on the Verdi opera, it features a score by Elton John and Tim Rice, who _ with major contributions by South African composer Lebo M _ did the same for The Lion King.

To accommodate the demand for subscriptions in 2002-03, TBPAC and Broadway producers are considering extending the standard length of the engagement of each show from the current one week to two weeks, even for less than smash hits. Subscribers already take up much of the 2,500-seat Morsani for the eight shows in a weeklong run.

"We have debated if it's time to go to a two-week" run, Lisi said. "We have a lot of people we can't service because they want really great seats but they're all spoken for."

Longer runs could worsen the problem the Florida Orchestra has in getting dates in Morsani Hall. The orchestra often must play its Tampa concerts in the smaller Ferguson Hall when a Broadway show is booked in Morsani. Orchestra ticket sales have suffered badly.

Lisi and orchestra officials have even talked about the orchestra's playing concerts in Morsani on Monday, the traditional off day for theater.

"I think Monday would be great for the orchestra, and that might meet the need for consistency in their dates," she said. "But a lot would depend on whether the Broadway producing companies will go for it. It also depends on how big a load-in there is for a show. There are also some shows that go beyond the proscenium arch. Like Phantom, even though it's dark on Monday, the chandelier is still up there."

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