In just over half an hour, visitors to Busch Gardens in Tampa, FL take a musical journey into the heart of Africa in the new production Ka Tonga — Musical Tales From the Jungle. The show's simple tales are told in a lavish, Broadway-style production that further enhances the park's famous animal tradition.

Ka Tonga was created for the park's Moroccan Palace Theatre, after park management decided there were more than enough animals and roller coasters on the premises. The story follows the adventures of four jungle creatures — Kipopo the caterpillar; Whirly, an adolescent monkey; RokRok, a belligerent bullfrog; and Kilinda, an African crowned crane.

The show starts off with Whirly, who has trouble fitting in. The scene culminates with Whirly and other monkeys swinging through the jungle and making acrobatic leaps and lunges. Kipopo's tale is next, and it is a journey of self-discovery with the other insect denizens on the jungle floor. RokRok's scene takes place at the watering hole where he encounters meercats, cranes, birds, a turtle, and even a thirsty hippo as the overbearing bullfrog learns the importance of listening to others. Finally, Ka Tonga's showstopper involves Kilinda who brings together all the animals and people during a raging flood in a survival story of epic proportions. Telling the tales of these animals are aspiring storytellers — or Griots — who are all striving to become masters of their craft.

The animals and the Griots are aided by a bevy of Broadway design pros, all of whom have created a theme park show that is a far cry from the papier mache puppet shows of yesteryear.

Broadway lighting veteran Donald Holder, whose resume includes Movin' Out, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Little Shop of Horrors, and The Lion King, is responsible for lighting this rumble in the jungle. The costumes are designed by Frank Krenz whose Broadway credits include Victor/Victoria and The Will Rogers Follies. James Joy's sets have been seen on and off Broadway and around the country in numerous regional theatres. ED columnist and sound designer Jim van Bergen brings the music and African rhythms to the audience. Finally, puppet master Michael Curry's whimsical creations delight audience members of all ages.

A Jungle Gym

The first thing the audience notices upon entering the theatre are two twisting, majestic trees that flank either side of the stage. The trees' mangled roots appear to grasp the stage while the leafy, arching branches reach high into the flys. The trees serve as launching pads for the actors and dancers costumed as various animals, as well as a staging area for the performers, many who swing from one tree to the other. The set is more a playground than a traditional backdrop; that was the intention, according to Joy. “The challenge was that we had to provide a jungle gym for the monkey scene, and that dictated so much,” he explains. “We did a full-scale mock up as we went into the final design phase so we could see exactly where the platforms, ropes, and apparatus had to be in order to get the kind of movement that the director, Chase Senge, and the choreographer, Abdel Salaam, wanted.”

Tom Edelston, the production's aerial designer, set up a 40' high by 40' wide truss rig that became the model for what Joy had to conceal in the downstage foliage which had to carry the swinging apparatus and the landing platforms. “Tom and I got together at Mystic Scenic Studios as they were carving the trees and he would go about trying to climb them,” Joy says. “He would mark where there needed to be a foot grip or hand hold and we worked it into the woven resin bark mold that we applied to the rough carving of the tree. It was a great collaborative process that paid off in the performance level that he got from the young, fairly inexperienced performers.”

The African settings are more of a fantasy because the audience has just come in from one of the most natural-looking jungle parks in the world. “I was taken at how beautifully the park is done up,” Joy says. “That was an easy directional decision, so we started looking into African totemology — a word I coined for Ka Tonga — and treated the foliage with the design idea that it all could have been carved by artisans who would've put in cultural, spiritual, or mythical emblems or symbols.”

Since the concept of the show revolves around the tales of four very different animals, it was going to be necessary to change the scale of the action which Joy viewed as his single biggest challenge. “I had to decide on what language would allow you to go from the treetops where a human had to work as a monkey in scale, which was easy, then take the audience under the plants into the world of insects, where a human is now portraying a caterpillar with a 20' praying mantis coming in,” he says. “I found a photography book called The Jungle that had a photo taken underneath a batch of medium-sized African plants; that became the immediate inspiration for the big leaf rolls that came in to cover the treetops. The intent was that you put enough green into the trees and enough green light on them, they become the basis for very small plants and allow the insect life to be in proper scale with that foliage.”

Then there were the scenes that featured frogs and turtles at a watering hole. “The painted water silks helped adjust our measure of the scale at work there,” Joy says. “In the flood scene, part of its effectiveness is a similar change in scale where we used a 40' by 40' silk which, in combination with the theatre's lift that raised it 9', gave us an easy way to show the silk floating with a great deal of scale.” Also in the flood scene was a rain curtain that had been in the theatre for years; it was a device that, at first, Joy was dead set against using because he felt the texture of real rain would never feel right with the abstract jungle set. “I argued for most of the three and a half years of the design process that it's the one natural texture in the show so it's not the same language as the fabric of the flood,” he says. “But once I saw it, I realized that I was totally wrong! I was very happy it paid off.”

The Beauty of the Beasts

Krenz designed 57 costumes for Ka Tonga, and it took over 2,000 hours to construct them. The ornate collar on Shade's costume alone comes with almost 1,400 beads that were individually hand stitched to the fabric. The collar weighs almost 8 lbs. and took a seamstress a week to complete. It is that kind of detail that makes the costumes for Ka Tonga much more elaborate than what is normally found at a theme park show. “We were going for a more authentic look rather than trying to fake it,” Krenz says. “We wanted the real materials and the real textures rather than trying to just do a latex sculpture of the collar and make it look real. We went real.”

The main human stars of the show were the Griots; each had their own look that was not strictly based on a single section of Africa. While each character's dress was based in a particular culture, Krenz and his team felt free to make the designs their own. For example, the head Griot, Karume, was swathed in robes that reflected the clothing of North Africa. Shade, who has Ka Tonga's biggest diva moment with a showstopper that includes a thunderstorm and riding an animal-filled barge during the aforementioned flood, has a costume that is based on Egyptian motifs.

Other design elements used in the costumes were culled from various parts of Joy's set. “I took motif's from Jim's proscenium that I put into the ensemble's clothes,” Krenz explains. “The pattern in the unitard that the chorus and dancers wear was based on the designs in the trees and look almost like tattoos.” He added that in designing the costumes, he had the other designers' work in front of him so that made his job even easier. “For example, the detail on Shade's cape comes from earlier sketches Michael [Curry] had done for the crane puppet she represents. I could see where the other designers were going and that gave me the chance to adjust my designs — sometimes physically on stage.”

Krenz got involved with Ka Tonga through Michael Curry, with whom he had worked on over half a dozen shows. “We've learned over time how to work with each other,” Krenz says. “In this case, it was my turn to support his puppet designs because they are so important to the show. There's such a blending of the costumes and the puppets that it's hard to see where the puppet ends and the costume begins. Once he established the vocabulary, then it was easy for me. I could follow along easily and work with the different levels of fantasy and reality.”

In one particular scene, the Griot Citiwala represents a spider and climbs into a steel web. For her safety she was not just climbing, but was harnessed to a guide wire as she traversed the web. This scene was where Krenz found one of his biggest challenges. “It's hard to make someone look pretty and svelte when they're wearing a damn harness!” he says. Through the use of capes and layers of colorful fabric, the harness was barely noticeable. Plus as Citiwala approaches the web, she spreads her arms to reveal three more pairs of spider legs, which provides an unexpected surprise for the audience.

Scene & Herd

The music in Ka Tonga is “semi-live” in that the music is pre-recorded but the singers are performing live, which, according to van Bergen, provided quite a number of special considerations for the production. “The toughest thing is that in the tech process, while we're trying new things in a scene there are re-writes, edits, and revisions,” he explains. “Any pre-recorded elements have to have a lot of attention, and the entire audio team was all paying constant attention to the tiniest changes in the ProTools software and the Yamaha DM2000 console's settings and scenes. Trying to blend recorded and live elements seamlessly is tricky, but we were well prepared and the results are very successful.”

Ka Tonga needed to be as similar as possible to other theme park shows,” van Bergen explains. “It had to be operable by a rotating staff of engineers who are not used to working at this level of theatre and to have a grossly accelerated show life designed to have from six to eight shows daily.”

“In the same way I had to learn about theme parks, I had to teach the Busch Gardens staff about why and how we do things,” van Bergen continues. “We all did a lot of communicating, but it was no different than working in a new media — such as doing a circus after working on opera — for most designers. We do what we are trained to do, and work hard to make a seamless meld in the environment.”

In addition to the DM 2000, van Bergen's sound gear included: 14 Meyer M1D Curvilinear Array Center Cluster; 16 Meyer MM4 Front-Fill speakers; two Meyer UPJ-P Side Vocal; three Meyer UMS-1P Subwoofers (Balcony); 10 Apogee AE-3 Surround Speakers; two Apogee AE-4 EFX Speakers; four Apogee AE-8 Sidefill Monitor Speakers; a variety of QSC amps; a Crest X-12 (24×12) Monitor Console; three DPA 4061 lavalier elements; 16 Countryman B3 lavalier elements; two ClearCom MS400 Mainstations; a SIM II System; a Neutrik Minilyzer/Minirator; and a Terrasonde Audio Toolbox.

Van Bergen's design intent was to have a traditional Broadway feel with acoustic, subtly enhanced live vocals together with great-sounding recorded instruments to emulate a real pit orchestra, and to up the ante emotionally by incorporating exciting surround effects for the transition from the real world to the world of the show.

With the help of Taylor and composer Desmond Boone, van Bergen was able to reduce the impact instruments such as the large African drums that permeate the show in order to keep the surround and balcony sub systems from becoming overpowering. “Vocally the show has retained all of my original intent with Broadway-style, hidden lavalier elements instead of handheld or head-worn boom mics at the singer's mouth,” he explains. “At points in the show we do push the sound level envelope past reality and gentle enhancement, but that's the trade off in excitement and power with these musical numbers. I think the end result is a fantastic ‘Broadway-style’ show that gives theme park attendees something really special to experience and leaves them wanting to see musical theatre.”

Illuminating the Dark Continent

After his Tony Award-winning lighting for The Lion King, Holder was a natural choice to be a part of Ka Tonga, but he found his biggest challenge when he first stepped into the theatre and saw the pre-existing rig that he was required to use, due to a tight lighting budget of $400,000. “On Broadway you have access to new and well-maintained equipment. Once it's finished in one production, it goes back to the shop and is refabricated and restored or refurbished, or you even use brand new equipment,” Holder says. “Due to Busch's corporate policy, I was obligated to use equipment that was already there and renting equipment was out of the question. Anything new had to be bought.”

Typically for a Broadway production, Holder would come up with an equipment list, put it out to bid to several shops, and get a package that is totally tailored to that production.

With Ka Tonga, Holder made his decisions based on the budgetary restrictions so he had to choose only the most essential items. “I don't want to sound like a spoiled kid, but there were a lot of limitations,” he says. “I work off-Broadway and in regional theatre as well, so you have to choose what's most important for the piece. The director and I had an open dialogue on what he could expect and a lot of compromises had to be made.”

Holder decided to light Ka Tonga more like a dance piece, but he was then charged with finding the right locations to provide traditional dance lighting angles, i.e., high sidelight and high crosslight, not to mention delineating the different color palettes for each story. “It was important to have Wybron Coloram II scrollers on the conventional equipment and I felt strongly enough about those that that's where we invested a large part of the budget,” he says. He ended up with US scrollers on the rig.

As in most musicals, Holder wanted automated fixtures to pick out singers and direct the audience's eye since there is so much to look at on stage. Unfortunately, none of the pre-existing gear would be able to do that so Holder came to the conclusion that he needed 15 moving lights to adequately cover the stage to complement the Cyberlights that were already on the rig.

Ideally, Holder would have liked VARI*LITE® VL3000s or Martin 2000 Performance units, but the budget would not allow that, so he chose High End Systems' Studio Spots. The fixtures were perfect for his needs. During Ka Tonga's insect-centric segment, UV is prevalent so Holder opted for four Martin MAC 2000s to do the tricks the Studio Spots could not. Aside from the 15 Studio Spots and the Martin 2000s, Holder also used 15 Cyber Mirror mountings from City Theatrical in order to better use the Cyberlights. These allowed Holder to mount the Cyber-lights vertically since there was a limited amount of space overhead. “The lighting instruments on this show were about very specific needs,” Holder explains. “Choices were ultimately determined by function and money available.”

Even with the compromises, Holder still managed to stock his rig with top-notch instruments including 21 ETC Source Four® 10 degrees, 83 Source Four 19 degrees, 89 Source Four 26 degrees, 29 Source Four 36 degrees, ETC Source Four 50 degrees, 16 Altman 6×22s, 50 Altman 6 × 16s, 34 Altman 6×12s, six Selecon Pacific 90 degrees, two Lycian 1272 Medium Throw follow spots, four Le Maitre G300 fogger/hazers, three Diversitronics Strobe Caps, three GAM Film EFX Loops, 15 Martin QFX-150 Illuminators, three Wildfire WF-600 long throw floods, and three Wildfire WF-400 short throw floods.

Despite his previous Tony-winning experience in bringing Africa to the musical theatre stage, Holder maintains that Ka Tonga is nothing like The Lion King other than they take place in Africa and they both use Michael Curry puppets. “The Lion King has the visual frame of a big open, luminous box with a vast unending sky,” he says. “Ka Tonga is dark mysterious jungle where magical things happen.”

Production Crew for Ka Tonga

Stage Manager

Brenda Berch

Assistant Stage Managers

Erich Freeman
Keith Woodard
(Automation also)

Costume Supervisor

Kami Jacobs

Lighting / Show Control Technician

Nikki Dvorak

Audio Technician

Ken Bert

Automation Technician

Chuck Freyer

Puppetry Technicians

Alex Amyot
Michall Folk

The remaining show technicians are trained to rotate through different positions in the show. They are;
David Black
Willie Campbell
Ben Clarendon
Cinia Del Collado
Rolando Delgado
Michael Fafard
Anthony Grotteclli
Chris Hlasnick
Thad Horst
Dusty Huffman
Bryan Kaschube
Alex Lai
John Lott
Ken McGuire
Rob Merrill
Mark Reynolds
Tom Riggs
Jeff Sandy
Justin Walker
Life Wing

The Costume/Dressing staff for the show is;
Sierra Allen
Baja Dean
Carol Goodloe
Darlene Moore
Regina Smith
Tiffany Spencer
Travis Triplett
Jing Wang
Melissa Woodcock