Michael L. Quintos
When it first debuted to much fanfare on Broadway in 1997, Disney Theatricals' gargantuan musical THE LION KING was a bona fide hit from the get-go, eventually dominating the 1998 Tony Awards with six wins (out of a total 11 nominations). Not only did the show win Best Musical, its director and chief creative mastermind Julie Taymor was also bestowed with the Tony for Best Director of a Musical (Taymor, of course, will later find equal notoriety for initially helming the troubled SPIDER-MAN musical).
Today, 18 years and billions of box office receipts later, the show still packs them in---so much so that it currently stands as Broadway's fourth longest-running show ever and last year even surpassed THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA as the biggest top-earning show in box-office history. And, yes, the show continues to awe and amaze audiences worldwide, earning fresh fans out of a new generation just now experiencing this theatrical phenomenon for the first time.
The show's continued success isn't really that much of a surprise.
First, the stage musical is based on an already massively popular 1994 Disney Animated hit film, so the stage adaptation already had a rabid, well-established fan base before the curtain (or, in this case, the fabric Pride Rock sun) even went up. Secondly, even those who've never experienced THE LION KING musical live already know (via word-of-mouth, the internet, or simply 18 years worth of media saturation) about the show's clever and creative staging---a re-imagining of the animated film for the stage that utilizes an innovative combination of jaw-dropping puppetry, authentic African sounds (musically and sonically), beautifully crafted masks and make-up, eye-popping costumes and sets, and beautifully lyrical choreographic movements. Kids love the family-friendly antics, while adults are fascinated by the show's clever artistry, witty humor, and not-so-subtle Shakespearean overtones.
And, of course, THE LION KING stage musical, like the film that inspired it, contains plenty of familiar music compositions, created by global pop star Elton John and his frequent lyricist partner Tim Rice. Even the sweeping, lush orchestral score of Hans Zimmer in the original animated film has been rebooted and refreshed in the Broadway iteration, flavored and reoriented even deeper with authentic African rhythms and choral voices courtesy of Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, and Taymor herself. In a brave but ultimately smart departure from the film, the stage version's musical leanings are much more in keeping with the geographic roots of the story which greatly enhances the show's overall vibe and grand design.
Currently, the hit phenomenon has once again returned to Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts finishing up its much-anticipated four-week return engagement through November 1 in Costa Mesa. Though the tour has visited OC multiple times since the show went on the road, the musical hasn't had a visiting production at the Center since 2010.
Boy, what a spectacular way to open Segerstrom's new Broadway season! If you're like me, this will probably be your umpteenth time seeing the stage musical, perhaps because it's just the kind of grandiose stage show where you feel like you're actually getting your money's worth.
My first experience with THE LION KING stage show dates back to when it made its triumphant debut at the then newly-refurbished Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Back then, I thought, wow... I have never seen a stage musical like this ever in my entire life! With its glorious pageantry and gorgeously creative technical wonders, it certainly helped further my already overwhelming love of musical theater. I was (and am) a Disney nut to boot, so to have Disney green-light such a seismic departure from its cartoon beginnings was both shocking and inspiring.
But admittedly, at the time, I wasn't as bowled over by the show as everyone else seems to be (I had a much more fervent affection for RAGTIME, the sweeping, epic musical that was beat out of the Best Musical Tony by THE LION KING). But I do remember feeling how breathtaking and grandiose much of it was---and that I was definitely witnessing something groundbreaking.
By and large, THE LION KING, under Taymor's creative guidance, ushered in a modern kind of imaginative staging---a well-orchestrated, well-choreographed symphony of graceful, culturally authentic dance, ingenious puppetry, infectious music, and its very unique Disney-esque theatrical ability to inspire dropped jaws of wonder. Taymor fashions all of these elements to come together in mesmerizing harmony, not only for the audience to suspend its preconceived notions of theater, but to also suspend any prior belief that so-called "children's entertainment" is pretty much void of any artistry or creative integrity. One cannot deny the influence the show has had on other Broadway shows that came after---its legacy and influence seems arguably present in shows as disparate as WICKED all the way to the recent "new" production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's CINDERELLA.
While, sure, admittedly it is not my favorite of the Disney Broadway shows (I am much more of a fan of the rousing NEWSIES with the original Disney-sanctioned BEAUTY & THE BEAST and MARY POPPINS not too far behind), overall, THE LION KING is undeniably one of the most creatively-realized stage shows ever---a shining example of a successful marriage between sheer, innovative artistry with sheer, unflappable commercialism. Despite a few narrative hiccups and some minor pacing issues, the show continues to be a genuinely entertaining e-ticket musical.
So... 18 years later---shown in a slightly edited version that is still pretty close to the original, except for a cut song and a few cost-saving production initiatives---is THE LION KING still worth seeing these days?
Absolutely! And here are 10 reasons why...
1. That Opening Number!
No matter how old or how cynical you get, seeing THE LION KING opener still gives chills. Witnessing the incredible menagerie of African wildlife enter the theater down the aisles---whether for the first time ever or for the zillionth time---remains a wonder to behold. I am not ashamed to divulge that I got a little teary-eyed when I first saw that glorious sunrise on stage for the first time more than a decade ago. I didn't shed any tears this time around, but yet hearing the show's all-seeing, all-knowing Rafiki (here played by the superb Mukelisiwe Goba) sing the ubiquitous "Circle of Life" backed by this incredible company did fill me with musical joy. Seeing the animal residents of the prideland in eye-popping jubilation is still one of the best opening numbers of any musical, period. (Note: for THE LION KING, Segerstrom Center has actually cut through its normal orchestra seating layout to provide ad hoc aisles for the parade of animals to enter in the midst of the audience. Kids and adults will love it!)
2. It's a familiar... yet different, more sophisticated take on the animated classic.
Whether you enjoyed Disney's animated movie or not, the stage show takes everything entertaining about the hit feature film and re-envisions it with remarkable creativity, adult humor, and, sometimes even emotional poignancy. The show re-imagines many of the film's significant plot points in clever, theatrically exceptional ways, particularly the wildebeest stampede---itself the show's true testament to Taymor's inventiveness.
Story-wise, this stage iteration of THE LION KING follows the movie's plot quite faithfully, which tracks the maturation of Simba from an adventurous, mischievous young lion cub (played by Tré Jones on Opening Night) to an adult lion (played by Aaron Nelson) grappling with his position within the Circle of Life. Within the kingdom of Pride Rock, though, Simba is the son of King Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) and his Queen, Sarabi (Tryphena Wade). Under Mufasa's rule, the Pridelands are a beacon of natural beauty, symbiotic richness, and animal harmony.
This, of course, infuriates Scar (Patrick R. Brown), Mufasa's evil, ne'er-do-well brother who wants, more than anything, to rule over the kingdom himself.
Guided by jealousy and his insatiable lust for ultimate power, Scar---with the aid of his Hyena pals Shenzi (Tiffany Denise Hobbs), Banzai (Keith Bennett), and Ed (Robbie Swift)---initiate a murderous plan to kill off gullible, young lion cub Simba. When that plan is foiled by Mufasa's timely intervention (alerted by Mufasa's avian "executive secretary" Zazu, puppeteered/voiced by Drew Hirschfield), Scar later schemes an even more elaborate plan: to not only kill his brother the King, but to also pin the blame for the death squarely on Mufasa's own son---thus thrusting Simba's wicked uncle to the throne once and for all.
Featuring a Tony-nominated book adapted by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, the stage musical frequently lifts entire passages of dialogue directly from the film's screenplay (a smart move considering how quotable the film has become). It does, however, incorporate one glaring, fun update: Zazu opts for a very au courant, ubiquitous, utterly inescapable Disney tune as his jail-house/bird-cage song (hint: princesses normally sing it in frigid, colder environments than the one in this musical).
3. The show still has plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments.
As Shakespearean serious as it is, THE LION KING does retain much of its dark, snarky humor courtesy of Scar's deliciously devilish one-liners as well as from his pun-loving, sassy Hyena collaborators. Of course, the real comedy team can be found in meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and his portly warthog pal Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), who befriend Simba upon his mysterious arrival, and introduce him to their problem-free philosophy "Hakuna Matata." The two BFF's also later help Simba take back Pride Rock from Scar who has---since Simba's sudden "disappearance"---turned Mufasa's once rich kingdom into a drought-stricken, resource-depleted wasteland.
4. It emphasizes musical and geographical authenticity.
In its admirable, continuous pursuit for cultural authenticity (as much as you can with a musical about talking/singing/dancing animals), the production wisely incorporates the music and sounds of the region, resulting in some of the most heavenly, gorgeous-sounding African choral harmonies you'll hear outside of the continent itself. THE LION KING achieves this by wisely casting many acting/musical talent from the region with great forethought---performing the terrific vocal arrangements by Lebo M.---which ensures that the beautiful, jubilant musical sounds of the continent are well-represented within this musical story. Aside from the rousing opening number, songs like "One By One," "Shadowland," and "He Lives In You" ("They Live In You") reiterate this motif. Fortunately, these newer songs written for the stage production seamlessly work well alongside the more pop-sounding tunes Elton John and Tim Rice originally wrote for the film, elevating the music part of this musical into a much higher plane of sophistication most probably did not expect from an adaptation of a cartoon originally intended for children.
5. The visuals are still just unbelievable!
Don't be fooled by the fact that this is a national tour production of a show that's been around for almost two decades. THE LION KING's dazzling artistry and technicolor brilliance is still very much on display despite a few economic and running-time trims here and there. The true excellence of this stage musical is that it does not merely replicate the same bright hues of the movie. Rather, Taymor and her team---which include scenic designer Richard Hudson and lighting designer Donald Holder---have conceived a wholly fresh visual palette that is a thoughtful hybrid of Disney-esque art direction with the splendor of the African environment. Here, even patches of grass are alive, and not because many of the ensemble members actually portray these patches of grass.
6. The costumes and masks are striking and incredible!
Like its sets and backdrops, THE LION KING's costumes help transport you to the savannas and jungles of the story. There is no denying that all these characters are brought to life by an incredible company of actors. But in THE LION KING in particular, Taylor and her team have found an exceptional balance between theater and functionality with how each of these actors are outfitted to play their character---enough to encourage the suspension of reality and for the audience to believe that, yes, despite the human dancing and leaping across the stage, they are indeed majestic creatures of the animal kingdom.... that happen to sing like talented thespians. And in a masterstroke of pure genius, Taymor doesn't merely slap on a form-fitting area rug on the actors, they don manipulated fabrics and natural objects to suggest animal forms, and for the audience to practice some imagination to fill in the rest.
And speaking of...
Beautiful, carved masks and elaborate puppets complete the illusion for the actors. There are times when the masks, headpieces, and puppets actually grab our attention, allowing the actor to somewhat disappear, and to let the performance itself become front and center. Particularly striking: the masks/headpieces worn atop all the adult lions, especially Mufasa and Scar, which stunningly ascend or descend depending on what the drama requires. And, of course, the animal puppets---which include flying birds, insanely tall giraffes, massive elephants, and even galloping gazelles---add to the jaw-dropping excitement.
7. The cast moves with thoughtful, majestic purpose.
Together with the stunning work of Tony-winning choreographer Garth Fagan, Taymor's staging of THE LION KING adds to the overall splendor of the production, incorporating lyrical movements that make for beautiful modern dance pieces. One small grievance, though: I do believe it's time to retire that oddly out-of-place dance club-inspired dance break that features a swarm of hyenas suddenly getting down and funky to a thumping remix.
8. Hakuna Matata. Can You Feel The Love Tonight. I Just Can't Wait To Be King.
You may know the songs and score from the movie, but you haven't heard their true potential until you hear them in this stage musical, performed and sung live with great gusto and a backing orchestra conducted by musical director Rick Snyder. And sandwiched in between them are some additional songs crafted mostly by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, and Jay Rifkin that enrich the show with more ear candy.
9. The current cast is just outstanding.
Goba's opening song will give you chills, and later, she provides some chuckles as the wise baboon Rafiki. Cordileone and Lipitz, as Timon and Pumbaa respectively, are wonderfully hilarious, acting out and puppeteering their technically-complex character costume rigs with admirable pep. Ramsey's Mufasa and Wade's Sarabi are elegantly regal and good-hearted while, by contrast, Brown's take on the stage version of villain Scar is both sinister and sassy. The Hyena trio played by Hobbs, Bennett, and Swift are effective as sarcastic scene-stealers. The show's young twosome---Simba played by Tré Jones and Nala played by Mikari Tarpley during the Opening Night performance---have fantastic voices paired with their buoyant, youthful energy. Naturally, the actors tasked with playing the two roles as older adults are also quite exceptional. Nelson winningly leads the show's second act as the redemption-seeking adult Simba, while Nia Holloway floored me with her marvelous singing voice as adult Nala, a character that has been smartly expanded here compared to the original film.
10. It's still one of the best ways to introduce the wonders of musical theater to young children.
What better way can you think of to dazzle a young kid exposed to countless mind-numbing hours of tv, movies, and the internet? Take them to a live theatrical experience... like this show. THE LION KING is a great, palatable segue, considering it's got familiar animated classic roots, is family-friendly, and yet has a pretty cool factor thanks to its awesome visuals and theater magic.
So, whether you're a 5-year-old first-time theater-goer or a 75-year-old with lots of Playbills at home, THE LION KING is still---almost two decades later---a pretty great bet for an entertaining evening. If it's been a while since you've seen it or have not experienced it ever, now is a good time to check out this global phenomenon.
** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq
Photos from the current National Tour of Disney's THE LION KING by Joan Marcus. Review originally published for OnStage.
Performances of the national tour of DISNEY'S THE LION KING at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, November 1, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org