Broadway classics and behind-the-scenes stories are on the playbill for San Juan Community Theatre’s upcoming event: “Story and A Song: a Cabaret.”
“I feel so privileged. So many people get a job on Broadway and then it closes in a week,” Ben Jeffrey said. Jeffrey has portrayed Pumbaa in Broadway’s “The Lion King” for the last nine years.
In a pay-what-you-can event at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, July 19, Jeffrey will entertain attendees with his favorite Broadway history, as well as stories of his life in show business.
“Ben is a master storyteller, an incredible vocalist, dedicated comedian, and you might see a San Juan Islander or two joining him for a duet or trio,” a press release of the event explained.
Jeffrey will also be performing at Soiree Blanche, the theater’s 2019 summer fundraising gala at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 21, at Eagle Cove Drive. Tickets for the fundraising event can be bought through the theater’s box office at www.sjctheatre.org. Tickets are $150 per person.
Jeffrey got into show business at an early age.
“I grew up in Kansas City, near one of the worst school districts in the country at the time,” Jeffrey said.
Unable to afford private school, his mother started a theater homeschool, Jeffrey explained. By the time he graduated, 200 hundred families participated in her home school program, he noted. He also realized then that performing in theater was what he wanted to do as a career.
After graduating from a small college, Jeffrey landed his role in “The Lion King” Broadway show. He said he considers himself lucky to have found a solid Broadway gig.
“The Lion King,” a live-action remake of the 1994 animated film, is in movie theaters this summer and tells the story of a lion cub named Simba whose father Mufasa, the king, is killed by Simba’s uncle, Scar. Simba is forced to flee his pride, leaving behind everything he knows and loves. Pumbaa, a warthog, and his friend Timon, a meerkat, adopt and raise Simba.
“What I love about Pumbaa is he is loyal and very kind,” Jeffrey said. When Pumbaa and his buddy Timon find Simba, whom Jeffrey notes is a predator, it is Pumbaa that advocates saving the cub.
“He is easygoing, but not afraid of doing the hard work,” Jeffrey added.
The Pumbaa costume is the largest single-person costume in the performance, weighing 50 pounds, Jeffrey explained. Over the years it has caused him some physical pain, but he has taken it in stride and has focused on taking care of himself by going to the gym.
“There are people that dig ditches every day and no one claps for them, so I’m OK,” he said with a laugh.
Jeffrey was able to perform in his old stomping grounds, Kansas City Missouri. It was a moving experience for the actor to go back to the theater where he first fell in love with the stage.
“The incredible work small-town theaters do is so important,” Jeffrey said. “That’s where most people get exposed to Broadway. There would be no Broadway without them.”
When asked how the two community theater events were arranged, Jeffrey said, slowly, “It’s possible I have a personal connection.”
San Juan Community Theatre’s Executive Director Nathan Kessler-Jeffrey, he confessed, is his brother.
“I would have come and visited him at some point, but I am excited to do these performances and support him and the theater,” Jeffrey said.
This will be Jeffrey’s first time visiting the San Juans, and he is looking forward to meeting islanders and seeing the sights.
During the cabaret performance on July 19, Jeffrey said there will be a wide mix of music, including Broadway classics, to more modern songs like those from “The Greatest Showman,” as well as surprise numbers.
On Sunday, Jeffrey will sing some Frank Sinatra tunes, among other songs, while gala attendees eat dinner.
“We will enjoy an intimate dinner together,” Jeffrey said of the evening. “Afterward guests can ask me questions like, ‘What is it like performing the same thing day in and day out eight days a week?’”
The short answer to that question is that he does love it. It is both mentally and physically taxing at times, Jeffrey said. Actors may occasionally feel like the show, can’t go on. In those cases, Jeffrey explained, he tries to remember that while he has sung “Hakuna Mata” over a thousand times for the audience, this is the first time they are hearing him perform it. Actors need and tend to want to keep performances fresh and tell it like it’s their first time.
“We, as performers, need to honor the act of storytelling,” Jeffrey said. “It’s a beautiful responsibility, and we can’t take that lightly.”
For more information about the community theater, visit www.sjctheatre.org.