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Closing Down the King

Thom Sesma, with coffee mug in hand, settles into a chair in the surprisingly compact makeup room of “The Lion King.”

Legs curled underneath him, Sesma closes his eyes as makeup artist Laura Sill begins to deftly apply layer upon layer of color — browns, reds, yellows, oranges, blacks — to his face.

It’s a half-hour ritual that Sesma, who plays the villainous Scar in the musical, has participated in more than 1,000 times, give or take, since the show opened at Mandalay Bay in spring 2009.

Just as Sesma’s turn in the chair winds down, Derrick Williams’ begins, as makeup artist Juliet White begins to apply to his face the unique palette of colors and designs that will identify him to audience members as Mufasa, one of the show’s heroes.

But, on Friday, all of this — the makeup sessions, the banter with the crew members, the pleasantries and jokes shared among the actors — will cease when “The Lion King” concludes its Las Vegas run.

For Sesma, that will mean returning to New York City. For Williams, it means staying in Nevada for at least a few more months until his daughter finishes the school year.

And, for both, it means leaving the job security the show has provided and returning to the nomadic lifestyle that, they say, is just part of the profession they have chosen.

Sesma joined the Las Vegas production of “The Lion King” in March 2009. At the time, he already had forged a career as a working actor in New York City whose credits spanned Broadway, off-Broadway and television.

“I always used to say there was a time when if you turned on A&E and they were playing ‘Law & Order,’ you’d see my face on reruns,” he jokes. “I was one of those sort of familiar faces whose name you don’t really know, but you say, ‘I’ve seen him before.’ ”

When he was asked to audition for a role in the new Las Vegas production of “The Lion King,” Sesma was intrigued.

“The show is legendary, let’s face it, and it’s always something I had been kind of interested in,” he says. “An actor is always interested in a job in a long-running show, but one nice thing about this is, you know as an actor how challenging it is.

“On the other hand, on a more mercenary hand, you know it’s going to be a long-running show. You know it’s going to be a success. ‘Disney’s The Lion King’ is the best-selling musical in the world, so it’s always nice to go into something saying, ‘Yeah, there’s a little bit of job security.’ ”

The only negative for Sesma was that he’d have to move to Las Vegas, away from family and friends, and interrupt a three-decade run as a contented New Yorker.

“I had every intention of just coming out here for one year,” he says. “But from the get-go, ‘The Lion King’ has been an extraordinary experience. I’ve been doing this long enough, and I’ve been on enough national tours and Broadway (shows) to know that when companies gather together on that first day, sometimes they click and sometimes they don’t.

“On that very first day’s rehearsal, there was something different about our company. It was an extraordinarily loving, familial, grateful group of people.”

So, original intentions notwithstanding, Sesma says, “every year they asked me to stay, and every year I said yes.”

Williams joined the cast in March 2010, almost a year after the show’s premiere, after a run in “Wicked” in Los Angeles.

Landing a role in “The Lion King” here was “kind of surreal,” he says. “It’s one of those shows that everybody dreams of doing — especially me, being an African-American person myself, this is the show I totally love to do.”

Yet, Williams says, “when I was in New York, I was doing other shows so I didn’t get an opportunity to see the show.”

He finally caught “The Lion King” here after landing the part, and counts seeing it for the first time as one of his favorite Las Vegas memories.

“You hear so many great things about it. But I remember sitting and watching the show for the first time, and I remember being in awe. Completely in awe.

“My jaw just hit the floor. I thought, ‘I just cannot wait to be a part of this.’ ”

Williams now has lived in Southern Nevada for nearly two years. He also has spent fairly lengthy periods of time living and working in other cities, including Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

“I’ve been very fortunate that those shows I’ve been a part of are shows that people want to see, that are hot tickets,” he says.

And now that “The Lion King” here is closing, he plans to stick around for at least a few more months.

“Actually, I have a daughter in school, so I think I’ll maybe allow her to finish the school year here,” Williams says. “I’m also a personal trainer, so I’m going to continue to do that here.”

But, of course, he’ll also start auditioning for his next job,

“When auditions come, that’s just what we do,” he says. “We pound the pavement.”

Daughter Alexa, who will be 6 in January, so far has adjusted well to the peripatetic nature of her dad’s profession. Still, Williams figures it won’t be long before he and wife Julia will have to think seriously about putting down roots somewhere for a bit longer than he’s been able to until now.

“But that’s the business,” he says. “That’s what we do.”

Sesma, meanwhile, is looking forward to returning home.

“Three years is a long time to be away from anything, but it’s particularly hard to be away from your hometown,” he says.

Yet, Sesma did put down as many roots as a working actor can. For instance, “I’ve made a lot of friends here,” he says.

“And it’s interesting, most of the friends I made here are not in show business — whether they’re just my neighbors in the apartment complex, or church, or through other organizations and other places I go. It’s been very nice.”

But, Sesma says, “I’m a big believer that an actor, a creative person, should not do the same job every night for multiple seasons and multiple years. I think that, after that, you’re going to get stale.”

So, Sesma says, “I’m looking forward to getting into my acting classes with my old mentor. I did shoot a pilot last year, and I’m hoping something might happen with that.”

And having to say goodbye after such a long run? Well, that’s just part of the job, too.

“That’s just how it goes,” Sesma says. “This isn’t my first rodeo. There’s always that bittersweet farewell at the end.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@
reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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