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Keeping Zazu Flapping 

by Michael Bowen & r & When we walked in, she was doing surgery on a bird.

"People don't realize how detailed these pieces are," says puppet supervisor Anne Salt. "This is a high-maintenance show."

During the previous night's performance, the comically flexible neck of Zazu (the white hornbill bird who's Mufasa's major-domo, controlled onstage by actor Derek Hasenstab) had gotten a little out of whack.

So do a lot of the Lion King puppets and masks. Underneath his Scar costume, for example, Larry Yando wears a tape recorder-size electronic box with several wires protruding from it. Using finger controls, he can thrust Scar's face forward, uncover his teeth and glower with his expressive eyebrows.

"There are a lot of intricate pieces inside some of the puppets," says Salt. "And when the electronic units themselves are under the costumes, right next to the actor's body, and he's been sweating for two hours -- well, they tend to break down."

Salt, who has been with the show for eight years -- since its inception -- knows full well how much detail work goes into the masks and puppets.

Scar's mane is made of turkey feathers; his regal mask, composed of latex and carbon fiber, is remarkably light.

Those are bleached peacock feathers in Mufasa's headdress; to create the effect of a wooden surface finish, his mask receives five coats of paint. "So when masks get chipped," says Salt, "we have to fix them with more than just a quick touch-up job." All that work for an effect that's not visible to most audience members.

"This show is unique in having a separate department just to maintain the puppets," says Salt. And there are 250 of them in the show -- gazelles, hyenas, zebras, birds on shoulders, birds on poles.

"For people who aren't big theatergoers, this is a difficult show to explain," says Salt. "When they hear that there are a lot of puppets, they tend to think of sock puppets or something. But I say, 'Well, no, with the elephant, there's one person in each leg.' So people are most surprised by the scale."

All the animals in the show are life-size. Men on four stilts -- leaning forward on their front "legs" and wearing enormous neck-and-head extensions -- mimic the movements of 18-foot-tall giraffes mincing across the stage.

The cheetah is remarkably lifelike. After four weeks of training with both the choreography and puppetry departments, the dancer/puppeteer uses her own legs as the cheetah's hind legs, with sticks to control the forepaws. Strings connect her head to the animal's; as the dancer moves her head, the cheetah's head follows along.

"And then there are my bird ladies," says Salt. (In the opening and closing numbers, five women each wear a contraption with three flapping birds.) "We stitch monofilament --- fishing line -- through each vein in each wing to hold them in shape." Sure enough, one wing had been broken the night before -- and one of Salt's assistants had a lot of careful sewing ahead of him.

As for Zazu's surgery, that's a Slinky in his neck; after repair attempts, he ended up needing a whole new replacement.

As we exited the puppet shop, Salt went back to tending Zazu's feathers. They're made of parachute silk, you see, and each one needs to be individually dyed.

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