The world’s No. 1 musical, Disney’s “The Lion King,” has taken over Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland since the first week of August. After debuting in 1998, the Broadway musical has received six Tony Awards and more than 40 major art awards.
As theater goers eagerly rushed inside the State Theatre to hum the tune “Hakuna Matata” and be whisked off to the South African horizon, one cast member walked west along Euclid Avenue for a different view.
Phylicia Pearl Mpasi, a Catholic from Silver Spring, Maryland, plays vocal swing character and Shenzi/Sarabi cover in the Broadway musical “The Lion King,” which is based on the 1994 Disney film of the same name. Although she’s been with the show since 2015, this is her first time as part of the cast touring in Cleveland. She was anxious to explore the city and at the top of her list was attending Mass and touring the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
Father Dan Schlegel, secretary and vicar for clergy and religious for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, had the opportunity to greet Mpasi when she went to the cathedral for Mass. During their conversation she reminisced about being an altar server in Silver Spring, outside of the Washington, D.C. area, where she grew up. She said being an altar server laid the foundation for her to become a part of something greater and to understand the importance of actions that help her today as she rehearses lines and learns choreography.
“My voice is operatic in style and I found my voice while singing at Mass,” she added.
On Aug. 24, Father Schlegel and Father Anthony Simone visited Mpasi on set, got a back stage tour and learned about the inner workings of the show.
Mpasi said she has been impressed by the Catholic community in Northeast Ohio and loves the beautiful architecture and development she has seen throughout the downtown area.
“Being on the road almost 365 days a year really draws me to lean into my Catholic faith. I work in a field with many uncertainties. Knowing my faith identity, putting my trust in God’s hands and channeling nervous energy into prayer keep me grounded,” she said.
After four years performing with the landmark musical, Mpasi said that each day she still gets nervous and jittery before performance time. “It is a new audience each night. I have met people who have traveled hours to see the show, cancer patients and even those that have made seeing the show their last dying wish. I think the nerves come from the desire of wanting to make sure their experience is memorable, moving and full of hope,” she added.
Before show time, she makes the sign of the cross and prays the Serenity prayer. “I tend to want to take control. This prayer reminds me that this is God’s role in our life.”
When performances fall on the weekend during conventional Mass times, she watches Mass online or listens via podcast.
Mpasi grew up with a strong Catholic foundation. She attended St. Catherine Laboure for elementary school in Maryland and after receiving a theater scholarship for high school, enrolled at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Olney, Maryland. She is a graduate of the musical theater program at Elon University in North Carolina, where she met the casting director and auditioned for the Broadway national tour of “The Lion King.”
“I love to sing and even though I was hesitant, I wanted to act. As I continued to grow my talents and education, God was giving me signs that this was something I would do as a career,” she said.