Kansas City native Ben Jeffrey has portrayed Pumbaa, the lovable warthog in Disney’s “The Lion King,” on Broadway for eight years. And he’s relished every flatulent minute of it.
“It’s so great,” he gushed over the phone, while sweating off his makeup between performances in New York recently. “To be able to play a character that is this beloved and iconic is a great privilege. We literally get to enter the scene screaming so there’s a lot of energy in it. It has so much heart and the storytelling just really fuels you.”
Jeffrey has taken a brief break from the Broadway stage, but not from Pumbaa. Instead, he is bringing the character to Kansas City when “The Lion King” comes to the Music Hall May 9-27.
In the musical based on the Disney animated film from 1994, Pumbaa and his buddy Timon, a meerkat, rescue Simba, a young lion who has fled into exile. Simba's evil uncle leads the cub to believe, falsely, that he killed his own father, Mufasa, King of the Pride Lands.
Pumbaa has some noisy gastrointestinal issues but is also a fierce warrior. The role requires a lot of physicality on the part of Jeffrey, who wears a bulky, kinetic costume.
"A lot of my close friends have never seen me do the story," Jeffrey says. "I love New York and I love my life here, but Kansas City is home. I still have so much love and affection for that town. So I talked to management (at Disney) and said, ‘I have no idea or expectations if you can make it happen, but if it’s something you’re amenable to, it’d be such a cool thing for me.' And they said, 'Absolutely! We can make this happen.'"
Jeffrey is especially excited to return to Music Hall, where he saw his first musicals, including "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserable," as a young boy.
“So I’ll probably walk in there and lose my mind,” he says.
Jeffrey grew up in Red Bridge, a Kansas City neighborhood just south of I-435, where he was home-schooled. His passion for acting is a result of a tight-knit theater community created by his mother.
“My mom knew from the get-go that she wanted social outlets for us to be engaged with others, so she created a performing arts group,” he says.
Initially, it was a debate and public speaking group for home-schooled kids that started with eight members. By the time Jeffrey graduated from high school, more than 200 families were involved and the arts had expanded to include musicals, orchestra, dance classes, even a Shakespeare festival.
“That turned into a really great community,” he says. “We’d have set-building days with parents chipping in, and we’d learn how to use power tools from the dad that was a roofer and how to sew costumes. It was a really rich environment.”
The Music Hall production will include another Red Bridge native, Lisa Swift, playing a tutor/wrangler.
Jeffrey earned a bachelor of fine arts degree at Abilene Christian University in Texas and a masters in acting at Rutgers University.
After Rutgers, he went to New York and never looked back, he says. Well, sort of.
He came back to Kansas City to act in a film called “Works in Progress,” where he met his wife, Christina Jeffrey, a Kansas native. They moved to New York in 2009, the same year the movie came out.
“It was a miserable cold winter working at Starbucks. In February (2010), I went on series of auditions for ‘The Lion King’ and booked it. I have the story that you should never tell young theater students — which is ‘I moved to New York and four months later had an acting gig. That rarely happens. The stars aligned.”
Jeffrey has also appeared in "Aladdin on Broadway," as well as on the television shows "Madam Secretary,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Louie,” and “The Good Wife.” He recently finished taping a role on "Orange is the New Black."
He and Christina have a daughter, Amelia, 3, who doesn't yet realize that her dad is Pumbaa.
"She knows I work in theater and has been here, but she hasn’t seen the movie yet, because she’s just now getting to point where she can sit through whole Disney movie," he said.
Plus she probably wouldn't recognize him what with the warthog makeup and a costume that requires him to hit the gym just to perform in it. One look at the bulky, 50-pound ensemble he wears suspended from his shoulders and there is no wonder why.
"I’m a pretty big guy,” he says. “It isn’t so much the weight of the costume, it’s the back end is made to swivel and is suspended and sometimes when I stop moving it keeps moving.”
It tends to torque his body, and can cause aches and pains, even injuries.
“Without sounding like I’m complaining about my really awesome job, we get used to some old-person aches,” he said, chuckling. “We wake up and say, 'Oh there’s that scene where I had to jump,' and 'Oh there’s that running across the stage.' I’m at the gym five or six times a week. We’re only on stage for a small time, but the rest of our lives have to be geared around those two and a half hours each day."
He'll wear a slightly lighter costume for the Music Hall production, which he says has a couple of minor differences from the Broadway production due to stage size.
"The tricky part is it's basically the same show but just different enough to really mess you up. So I'm working on that a lot right now," he says. "It's easier to go learn 'Aladdin' as whole new show."
If you go
Disney's "The Lion King" is showing May 9-27 at the Music Hall. For tickets, visit the box office at 301 W. 13th St., or go to www.theaterleague.com, www.ticketmaster.com or www.lionking.com. You can also call 1-866-870-2717.