Circle of ‘Lion’ Out of Africa

"In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight … "

Wait a minute! Forget the lion. Where's the warthog? Doesn't anyone respect the warthog?

Sure, Ben Lipitz knows it's a jungle out there. But he's managed to pull off the improbable – impressing as Pumbaa, the first Jewish warthog to come out of Cherry Hill, N.J.

"Well, I'm the only kosher one," he kibitzes.

Lipitz takes pride in being part of the Prideland, the head-turning turf of "The Lion King," which, after a decade on Broadway – where it's still selling out – has traded savannas for South Broad Street, taking up residence for an extended run starting Thursday, June 8 – opening night is June 10 – at the Academy of Music.

Selling tickets to the Elton John/Tim Rice rage of a musical directed by Julie Taymor? Hakuna matata – no worries; buying them is a different matter, as last year's box office sale opened to a conga line of "Lion King" courtiers, doing a samba for Samba, the cub who would be king in this 40-award-winning wonder.

It's good to be the "King"; and it ain't so bad to be the warthog, either.

"Yes," acknowledges Lipitz, "it's good to be Pumbaa."

He's certainly familiar with the character, warts and all. On tour for the fourth year with the dazzling Disney musical, based on the much-honored film about kings and kids, "Lion King" has been catnip to Broadway and all the rainforests where it's reigned internationally.

To be part of such a major worldwide hit that toted home six Tonys must be a gas. But then, for Pumbaa, gas has been a problem. Rolaids to the rescue?

"Everybody loves the comic relief," muses Lipitz of the warthog who hogs the audiences' heart.

So, how did the popular actor who's built a full film and TV bio on appearances in "The Sopranos," "Law & Order" and the Vin Diesel-fueled film of "Find Me Guilty" – as well as stage credits nationally and, notably, at the Walnut Street Theatre here – come to be a forest gump?

"I've pursued this job for some time," says Lipitz, 41 who "saw the show on Broadway once."

Indeed, he'd auditioned for two Broadway shows at once, also up for the role of Franz Liebkind, the playwriting Nazi of "The Producers" more familiar with armband-covered carrier pigeons than wayward warthogs.

But it was oom-pa-pa for Pumbaa, which he nailed with a magic touch of tusk, eschewing Hitler for hyenas and "Lion King."

Springtime for warthogs and Africa? "Everybody's kvelling in Tom's River," Lipitz says of the town he was born in.

Welcome Homecoming
Can he feel the love tonight – or, next week? "It's a wonderful homecoming," says the actor who honed his skills as first an intern at the Walnut Street Theatre, and then as an actor there in such productions as "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."

Who's laughing now? Smiling is more like it, reveals Lipitz, who loves the association with the Walnut, and who also once served as a teaching assistant to Walter Dallas at the University of the Arts.

Certainly he's come a long way, this down-to-earth actor who once played in "The Giraffe," a 1998 film, before wobbling on to the role of the most famous warthog in the world.

No worries? No worries! "I've got the greatest family, wonderful wife, terrific child" – indeed one who's star-struck, it seems.

"My wife brings him to the theater once or twice a month; he loves seeing me in makeup, and he's not afraid," says Lipitz of his 13-month-old son coming tooth-to-tusk with his famous father.

Perhaps the most drama in Lipitz's life has evolved over the past year, when Lipitz lost his father, Leonard, a dear friend as well as a dad.

He hung on, says the proud son, to watch his grandson be born. "And he was able to hold him in his arms."

Armed with memories and the mitzvah of having a child even as his father passed away, Lipitz knows that it's all about growing and being groomed for new real-life roles.

"I went from being a son to being a father," he says.

Such, he understands, is the real "circle of life."


Info to Go

"The Lion King," the Broadway award-winning musical, has recently been extended to Sept. 10 for its run at the Academy of Music.

For ticket information, call 215-731-3333, or log on to: www.kimmelcenter. org/broadway.

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