Thirteen-year-old Ramon Reed has the voice of a kid. But he has the vocabulary and social skills of a working professional.
He is, in fact, both.
The Charlotte native hadn’t seen the Tony Award-winning musical, “The Lion King” before he auditioned for it. But once he saw it – after landing the part – he thought: “This is insane. I get to do this every night?”
Not every night, actually. Broadway kids share their roles with another child actor and alternate performances. Ramon is in at least four shows each week. The beloved musical returns to the Blumenthal in Charlotte Aug. 22 through Sept. 9.
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After performing in a couple of local plays (Porch Productions’ “The Wiz,” for instance), Ramon went to New York last June to audition for the role of Young Simba at an open casting call. Intimidating for some? Sure. But not Ramon.
“We played games on stage,” he explained. “They taught us ‘Can’t Wait to be King,’ and then we performed it. They’re looking to see if you catch on quick. After a six-hour audition, I thought I’d have to wait about a week to hear. But I got a call back that day and got the role.”
Ramon traded in J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville for being home-schooled by his mom, Rosalyn Hart (or “stage-schooled” by a tutor when he’s on Broadway). Hart travels with her son. Sometimes, her 2-year-old daughter comes along, too.
Being on stage at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre “has moments that are surreal,” Ramon said. Touring life is exhilarating and exhausting.
Ramon has been to Little Rock, Ark.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Orlando and Jacksonville, Fla., Kalamazoo, Mich.; and points in between. Thirteen cities in 10 months. Even when he’s not performing, he’s required to show up at the theater.
The best part of travel? “Seeing all these cities and what they’re known for,” he said. “Every city has one or two things it’s known for. Orlando is known for Disney World, but Kalamazoo is known for snow.” (That may sound like faint praise for Kalamazoo, but Ramon seems to genuinely believe snow and Disney are equally magical.)
But there’s something else special about appearing on stage in a Disney hit. “I get to inspire other kids to do whatever they dream,” he said. “And that’s cool.”
Kids on Broadway learn to take responsibility for themselves in a hurry. Parents can’t hang around backstage before or during the performance. “They treat kids as professionals,” Hart said. “I drop Ramon off and pick him up. That’s it.”
On set, there’s a teacher/wrangler who tutors kids and makes sure they’re in hair and makeup and vocal rehearsals on time. That tireless woman pays close attention to Ramon, who has sickle cell disease, a hereditary disorder that, in the United States, affects primarily African-Americans. It can cause swelling of hands and feet, infections, fatigue and pain.
Playing Young Simba is physical demanding. The biggest challenge, Ramon said, is “the endurance it takes.”
“We have to make sure he gets plenty of rest, takes his vitamins and medication and stays hydrated,” Hart said. “The ‘Lion King’ company and his doctors have given us so much support. His teacher is so good about always keeping his water bottle filled and letting me know if he seems tired.”
“I don’t ever want Ramon to use his disease as a crutch,” his mom continued. “He’s got God-given talent, and we’re so fortunate he’s able to use it and that he’s healthy.”
Faith is central to the family. And while the show isn’t overtly religious, the spiritual idea of (spoiler alert!) our deceased loved ones watching over us is the theme running throughout. “The Circle of Life” could bring a tear to the eye of even the most jaded audience member. Ramon’s favorite number in the show is “He Lives in You (reprise).”
He lives in you/He lives in me/He watches over/Everything we see/Into the water/Into the truth/In your reflection/He lives in you.
“Our whole church is coming to see Ramon perform,” said Hart, who sings in the choir at Jonahville AME Zion Church. And Ramon has a ritual he engages in by himself before each performance: He prays for a good show.
“My mom always tells me,” he said, “every night should be like opening night.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
See the boy king
Ramon Reed and “The Lion King” roar into town Aug. 22 and will perform through Sept. 9 at the Belk Theater. Ticket start at $30 and are available at the Blumenthal box office and www.blumenthalarts.org/events/detail/the-lion-king-1. Follow Ramon on his travels via Instagram: @iamramon.reed.