'Lion King' Roars Against Coronavirus, and the Show Goes On!

Corinna Bisgaier
PRINCETON, N.J. – Students at Princeton Friends School – like kids everywhere – have had quite an unusual school year. Luckily for this group, a year that was completely in-person with classes largely outdoors (and with zero COVID cases!) will be capped off with two weekends and seven total performances of Lion King Jr., all to be held outdoors on the school’s playground.
In a year that has been driven by the creativity and innovation of staff and faculty, the small professional Pegasus Theater Company produced and directed this production very differently,  keeping students safe and eagerly engaged.
“I should say it’s been a challenge, but it’s been anything but,” said Peter Bisgaier, the director of the show and co-artistic director of the Pegasus Theater Company. “The kids have been so gung-ho about putting on the show, I almost feel like I’ve been dealing with seasoned pros. They are ready to bring the story of Simba to the stage – or in this case, the swingset.”
In planning for Lion King Jr. this spring, the production team had to be inventive from the beginning, knowing that all singing had to be done outside, and all performers had to be distanced, masked, and within their school grade-level pods. Although the school did not have an outdoor stage, they do have a two-story play structure that will serve as the stage for this unique production. Audiences will be seated on the playground lawn with groups socially distanced and masked throughout the performances.
“What the children and the Pegasus team has done is incredible,” said Head of School Melissa Carroll. “I had faith they were going to pull this off, and they’ve exceeded any expectations anyone could have possibly imagined.”
Before the school year started, Pegasus Theater Company was asked to provide arts elective classes at the school, as well as a range of after-school classes during the fall and winter seasons. As the year wore on, thoughts of the spring musical began to blossom. After all, last year’s musical was abruptly cancelled due to the coronavirus shutdown, leaving the children without a show. It was then the plans for this spring’s show were hatched.
Bisgaier and Jennifer Nasta-Zefutie have been active in teaching at Princeton Friends School this year with Bisgaier taking the lead in directing the musical. He has been lucky to find an excellent partner in Daniel Potter, a music and math teacher, who is the music director of the production. Although Bisgaier has directed dozens of productions with kids and professional actors, this is his first time directing a musical production. He is supported by a production team led by his wife and Pegasus board member, Corinna Bisgaier, who is acting as producer and helping to organize everyone behind the scenes. Their oldest child, Jessie Bisgaier, who graduated from PFS last year and now attends George School, will be stage managing while their younger daughter, Monica, plays Ed, the crazy hyena.
Although this year will be different than most, students have expressed an interest in keeping the outdoor format. In addition, this year’s production has been much more of a community endeavor than ever before. For instance, three of the eighth grade students –  Beatrice Ireland, Nathaniel Marinari-Feranchak, and Steven Pinneo – expressed interest in helping to direct the production and so have taken the lead on blocking several of the scenes as well as taking on lead roles in the production.
Additionally, the parent community has been active in volunteering. Brad Cohn agreed to record students singing when it became apparent that additional support would be needed with amplification in the outdoor venue. DuEwa Dickson stepped in as a choreographer and taught students about West African dance while mentoring student-choreographer Ava Quinby. In addition, she helped to source fabric for costumes from Ghana with the help of her brother, Mahiri, who was there teaching Djembe lessons.
Laura Fenster Rothschild, president of the Pegasus Board of Directors and parent of PFS student Harris (who plays Pumbaa) took the lead on sourcing and organizing costume pieces and creating a cohesive look for the production. Additionally, parents Dave England and Maggie Furniss lent their talents in sewing while Jennifer Szeto helped in set design and construction.
Many other parents came out to construct, make paper mache, and paint during several days of volunteer activity. Members of the larger community are also lending their time and talents. Yukata Uchita, a drumming instructor based in Princeton, has been teaching drumming to some of the students and Carla Helene Ezell helped to sew some beautiful masks and sashes out of sourced African prints.
In a time where so many are feeling separated, the PFS community is coming together to create a wonderful theatrical experience for their children and anyone who wants to join in on the fun.
Performances are scheduled to take place on May 13 and 14 at 6:30 p.m., May 15 at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., May 21 at 6:30 p.m. and May 22 at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Thursday, May 20 is being held as a potential rain date if needed.
Tickets are available to the community at https://www.pegasustheatrenj.org/ with a streaming option for those who can’t make it in person. Seating is first come, first served, and parking on campus is limited.
For more information, contact Corinna Bisgaier (908) 249-3272 or corinna.bisgaier@gmail.com.
A progressive, Quaker day school welcoming students in Pre-K through 8th grade to our historic Princeton campus nestled in the woods.