Ben Lipitz is one of the few people on the planet who feels honored to be called a flatulent warthog.
Lipitz has portrayed Pumbaa, Simba’s comical (and gassy) warthog companion in “The Lion King,” for 15 years, both on tour and Broadway. Next week, as the 20th anniversary tour production of “The Lion King” rolls into Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre for a three-week run, Lipitz will once again don his 50-pound Pumbaa costume and sing “Hakuna Matata” in 31 shows over three weeks.
Lipitz says Baltimoreans can expect a few changes from previous tours. The Tony-award winning “original creators re-orchestrated some of the music and re-choreographed a couple of the numbers,” he reveals.
A native of Cherry Hill, N.J., Lipitz, 52, will arrive in Baltimore on Monday night, Nov. 13, to rehearse for the show’s opening on Thursday evening, Nov. 16.
During the show’s run, his family will visit from their home base in the Poconos, near the Delaware Water Gap. His family joins Lipitz on tour whenever then can, and they particularly enjoy visiting Charm City. “My kids love the aquarium,” Lipitz says. “They’ve grown up on the show, and they’re excited to see the new tour.”
When the tour takes Lipitz further afield, his wife Rosalie — “a recovering actress,” Lipitz quips — and their two children, Matthew, 12, and Mikela, 9, keep in touch with him through texting and FaceTime.
Starring in the highest-grossing and third-longest-running Broadway production of all time may entitle Lipitz’s family to free tickets to dad’s performances. But starring in a major Disney production does not mean he gets complimentary family Disney World passes.
“Hey, it’s a big company!” Lipitz laughs. “We have nothing to do with the parks. Although I do remember one time we played Orlando and we swapped — park staff got to go to the show, and we got to go to the parks.”
Lipitz has seen “The Festival of the Lion King” show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and recognized former colleagues. “A lot of former cast members are in it,” he says. “They settled down in Orlando [Fla.].”
‘That Was Pumbaa!’
A graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, Lipitz says his kids are both “big hams,” with schedules packed with performance-based extra-curriculars — school musicals, piano, saxophone, violin, dance and more. Lipitz isn’t sure if they’re “intent” on a life on the stage; even though they “love performing,” they’ve seen the less exciting and glamourous aspects of the job.
“They see how it’s a lot of work,” Lipitz says.
Lipitz might qualify as “The Lion King’s” hardest-working cast member, contending with the heaviest costume onstage. The costume, which is really an elaborate puppet, is six feet long and weighs 50 pounds. Lipitz says his job is to “make it look light as a feather.”
That initially took some practice.
“When we rehearsed the dialogue and music, I’d wear the puppet in front of mirrors so I could see what I was feeling around me,” Lipitz recalls, explaining that his performance is all about “articulating the puppet. It’s not about me as the performer but bringing [the puppet] to life.” Lipitz says this requires dexterity as well as muscle memory, since Pumbaa has “detailed eyes which move. His nose sniffs. His mouth opens.”
In addition to practicing with the puppet, Lipitz says he channeled his “inner warthog” by watching videos of the zaftig critters and studying them at the zoo.
In his performances as Pumbaa – which now number more than 5,000 – Lipitz says, “I’m not trying to imitate the iconic Disney character Ernie Sabella created [in the film], but I want people to recognize the character they came to see. I want them to say, ‘Oh my gosh, that was Pumbaa!’”
Although admitting that the “costume is holding up better than I am,” Lipitz insists, “I love what I do every single day.” One of the exciting parts of theater, he says, is the “immediate connection with the audience. It’s the thrill of having to be on your toes when things go awry.”
And in a production with as many technical elements as “The Lion King,” he says, “Puppets will be puppets.” Lipitz recalls a performance when Pumbaa’s spine snapped.
“I thought I was going to take out dancer after dancer in a six-foot circle around me,” he says. However, Lipitz says, overcoming potential and actual snafus is part of the excitement. “You get to enjoy them,” he insists. “If you’re in the moment, you react like the character reacts – and hope the audience doesn’t notice!”
Over thousands of performances, Lipitz says he hopes the “best qualities of Pumbaa have become mine.” These qualities include “unconditional love, being in the moment, and [Pumbaa’s] ‘No Worries [philosophy].’”
Those traits may have been gleaned from Pumbaa, but Lipitz says his sense of humor definitely came from his father, a newspaper publisher in Cherry Hill, a suburb of Philadelphia. “He was a raconteur,” Lipitz says. “Always with a story, always with a joke. In another life, he was a Borscht Belt comic.”
When Lipitz isn’t belting (and belching) out Pumbaa’s signature songs, he’s either home — where his family is preparing for his son’s bar mitzvah — or working for his favorite foundation, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which gives to approximately 500 charities worldwide. Lipitz serves as “The Lion King’s” point person for the nonprofit, and says his role “comes about from my Jewish upbringing. That responsibility — tikkun olam, repairing the world.”
And even though Pumbaa is, essentially, a horned pig, Lipitz wants Baltimore’s Jewish community to know this: “Pumbaa is the kosher ‘other white meat.’”
Erica Rimlinger is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Top Photo: (Left to right) Nick Cordileone (Timon) and Ben Lipitz (Pumbaa) in a scene from the 20th anniversary production of “The Lion King.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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