Nick Cordileone as Timon and Ben Lipitz as Pumbaa in Disney’s The Lion King.
Nick Cordileone as Timon and Ben Lipitz as Pumbaa in Disney’s The Lion King. (Joan Marcus)

For nearly 19 years, Ben Lipitz has starred on Broadway, and on tour, as the wildly funny, beyond-lovable, scene-stealing Pumbaa in Disney’s The Lion King coming to the Detroit Opera House Jan. 27-Feb. 20.

When Matthew Lipitz was in first grade, his teacher told the students to draw a picture of their parents in their occupational garb. Upon seeing Lipitz’s rendering, the teacher told Lipitz that his drawing was a nonsensical fabrication and sent the first grader crying to the principal’s office.

When the principal returned to class with Lipitz in tow, the principal reprimanded the teacher, announcing that yes, indeed, Lipitz’s dad truly was Pumbaa.

And to that embarrassed, small-minded teacher, the young Lipitz smiled and boldly remarked, “Hakuna Matata.”

Ben Lipitz
Ben Lipitz

Ten years later, Ben Lipitz still kvells, recounting the legendary tale about his son, who is now 16.

For nearly 19 years, Ben Lipitz has starred on Broadway, and on tour, as the wildly funny, beyond-lovable, scene-stealing Pumbaa in Disney’s The Lion King coming to the Detroit Opera House Jan. 27-Feb. 20.

“I’ve been playing Pumbaa for so long that I’ve gotten a special dispensation that I’m now kosher,” laughs the actor who has played the “Hakuna Matata”-singing warthog for more than 6,400 performances.

This will be the fifth time that The Lion King comes to Detroit, and Lipitz has been in all the productions. For the actor who has spent the majority of his time on the road since 2003 touring with the Tony Award-winning musical penned by Elton John and Tim Rice, the pandemic brought Lipitz home for 18 months while Broadway and tours were halted.

Life During the Pandemic

“Like every other artist, I did a lot of Zoom teaching, singing for benefits via video, taking classes and creating opportunities to support my colleagues emotionally,” says Lipitz, 57, who lives with his son, wife, Rosalie, “a recovering actress,” and daughter, Mikaela, 13, just outside of New York City. Mikaela’s bat mitzvah is on hold for now until they feel safe being in a larger community.

“The pandemic gave me time to reflect, recharge and renew,” Lipitz adds. “It was an incredible time to reconnect to my family and to my faith. I did a lot of conversing with God in those 18 months.”

Even during that time, Lipitz made it a priority to continue his charitable volunteer work with his hometown Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where Lipitz has produced a Broadway Cabaret show for the past 12 years. 

Monies raised — well into the millions — from the Cabaret, which was moved to an online fundraiser for spring 2021, support camp scholarships for special needs children for the JCC and Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey.

“The depth of Broadway talent for this recent production was staggering because all of my fellow artists were home during the pandemic and were able to participate,” says Lipitz, whose television debut was as a rabbinical assistant on Unsolved Mysteries. Other favorite Jewish roles include Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and Max Bialystock in The Producers.

On the Road Again

As of September 2021, Lipitz is thrilled to be back on tour again and reunited with his onstage sidekick of 10 years, Nick Cordileone, who plays Timon, the wisecracking meerkat. 

“Timon and Pumbaa are beloved icons. You can feel the anticipation and laughter that’s about to happen as we come on stage,” jokes Lipitz, who shares a dressing room with his talented Italian friend. “It’s all the same guilt, just different holidays. He talks with his hands, and I eat with my hands.”

Their hands are integral components to their performances and costumes, as Lipitz operates Pumbaa’s jaw and mouth with his arms. The Lion King is a spectacular visual feast based on Bunraku, a form of traditional Japanese puppet theater, that was created by Julie Taymor. Taymor, the show’s director, costume designer (Tony Award-winner) and mask co-designer, was the first woman to win a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical.

Lipitz says that his Pumbaa costume is the heaviest, single-puppet costume in the show, weighing 50 pounds and topped off with three-feet of yak hair.

“I look like a giant sonic hedgehog,” he laughs.

Though he misses the special concentrated time he was able to spend at home with his family during the pandemic, Lipitz is thrilled to be bringing The Lion King back to audiences, especially to Detroiters looking for a fun wintertime excursion.

“I am an actor and artist who provides for his family in an industry that doesn’t have a lot of stability. And, for me, that’s the very essence of the tenets of Judaism in that we always want to make it better for our children,” Lipitz says. “Besides, I get to be Pumbaa every night. Why would I ever give up this job? I’ve got the greatest gig in the world.” 

Details

The Lion King will be performed at the Detroit Opera House from Jan. 27-Feb. 20. The Lion King will play Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the Fisher Theatre Box Office, online at Ticketmaster.com and BroadwayInDetroit.com or by calling (313) 871-1132. 

Patrons will be required to show proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the performance date or proof of full COVID-19 vaccination. All patrons are required to wear a mask. Disney recommends its productions for ages 6 and up. Children under the age of 2 will not be admitted. Children ages 2-11 will not need to show proof of negative COVID test or vaccine to attend The Lion King at the Detroit Opera House.

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