Before Simba can roar to life, before African animals gallop center stage, before the iconic songs of Oak Grove Middle School’s production of “The Lion King Jr.” echo through the auditorium — there must be costumes.
Outfitting 78 children for a large musical isn’t a responsibility that Kevin Doheny takes lightly. The Bloomington parent has clocked 10 months of volunteer work on nights and weekends, making masks and costumes for the middle-school version of the Broadway hit “The Lion King.”
The rights to “The Lion King Jr.,” adapted for kids in elementary and middle school, became available only last year. That makes Oak Grove, whose production runs March 3 to 5, among the first schools to get its hands on the show.
That also means there aren’t many yet who have costumed the larger-than-life production on a middle-school budget. “The Lion King” is known for being a spectacle of puppetry, masks and costumery that emphasizes the majesty of animals in the African savanna.
“I had never done anything like this before,” said Doheny, who had volunteered for shows but never for anything on this scale.
After researching the style of the original show, Doheny started posting his step-by-step mask creation process on YouTube in May.
His videos have yielded more than 20,000 views and some questions, prompting him to create a website, theartfulness.com. Costumers grappling with the production’s challenges have been following his videos and instructions to help make kid-sized masks for similar school productions.
“I literally received e-mails, constantly, from people all over the world,” Doheny said, including a couple from Australia who wanted to buy his lion and lioness masks for their wedding.
“I’m really happy to know I can pay it forward and help others out with this,” he said.
A starting point
Doheny, a social worker by trade whose daughter is in the Oak Grove musical, professes a lifelong passion for such art as painting, stained glass and interior design.
To make the masks, he sculpts a clay mold, wraps plaster on the clay and then removes it from the mold. After applying papier-mâché to the plaster wrap, Doheny sands the mask, uses papier-mâché clay to add detail, paints it and attaches a baseball cap so kids can put it on. Constructing one mask from start to finish can take three days.
The Simba mask took the longest to make — nearly five days. It’s one of the most detailed, with beads and hair poking out around the edges.
Doheny said he found the work therapeutic while enduring illness and two major surgeries over the last few months.
“The costuming was really something that motivated me to kind of get up every day and get out of bed and work through the pain, and it’s been a tremendous therapy in terms of my recovery,” he said.
Sarah Hughes of Bloomington, a costume volunteer whose child is in the show, said Doheny produces masks full of details that help stamp the actors with individual characteristics.
Oak Grove Middle School draws audiences from across the metro area for its musicals, considered the biggest event of the school year, said “Lion King” musical director Bryan Blessing. Upward of 150 students audition annually for the shows, which typically have a combined cast and crew of 100, he said.
The middle-school musical can be a jumping-off point for budding thespians, Blessing said. Many get their start in middle school and go on to participate in other community theaters and high school shows in Bloomington.
Some end up competing for awards from the SpotLight Musical Theatre Program, a part of the Hennepin Theatre Trust that recognizes outstanding student theater work.
Students are amazed that Doheny can create such costumes from scratch, Blessing said. “Each piece is really a work of art,” he said.
Doheny finds the kids’ reactions heartening.
“Just seeing the look on their faces when I come in every day with new costumes for them — they cheer and applaud, and they go crazy,” he said.