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Ben Lipitz, aka Pumbaa, hits 5,000 performances in ‘Lion King’

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Ben Lipitz plays the beloved warthog Pumbaa in “The Lion King.” (Courtesy Joan Marcus)
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For “Lion King” actor Ben Lipitz, playing Disney’s beloved warthog is just part of a day’s work.

“Pumbaa is one of the most iconic Disney characters. Everybody loves him and that’s what makes him special. He’s a rock star in the warthog world,” says Lipitz, who appears in the touring production of the award-winning Broadway musical opening this week at SHN Orpheum Theatre.

“It’s a phenomenal story,” says Lipitz, reached while on tour in Albuquerque.

Now in its 19th year, “The Lion King” is as popular as ever, showcasing director and costume designer Julie Taymor’s breathtaking work and telling the tale of a young lion, Simba (which touches on universal themes including self discovery, elders passing on wisdom to their young, and the importance of unconditional love).

Lipitz is in his 14th year with the show, having appeared on Broadway and on tour. He recently hit his 5,000th performance.
“I literally feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” Lipitz says. “I absolutely love what I get to do every day.”

His costume — made of steel, leather, carbon fiber and layers of painted gauze and weighing nearly 50 pounds — is the heaviest in the show. Although he uses his arms to operate the mouth, tongue, nose and eyes, his face is visible to the audience.

The touring production boasts local talent, including Drew Hirshfield, who plays Zazu, and is from Santa Rosa.

Irene Mecchi, who co-wrote the screenplay for the 1994 Disney film, is a native of San Francisco and UC Berkeley graduate.

Roger Allers, who co-directed the animated feature, also has ties to the Bay Area.

The famous Broadway score includes catchy numbers from the film such as “Hakuna Matata,” written by Elton John and Tim Rice.

Lipitz, 52, says he hopes audiences will leave the theater both entertained and inspired.

“You have to know yourself before you can take your place in the circle of life,” he says. “You have to know yourself and be OK with yourself before you can focus on something bigger.”

IF YOU GO
The Lion King
Where: SHN Orpheum, 1192 Market St., S.F.
When: Opens Nov. 2, runs Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Dec.31
Tickets: $55 to $228
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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