Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic
Toronto, ON - Dear Touring Musicals:
My wish for all of you is to provide what Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ gave me and my 16-year-old godson on opening night at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre. Let me kindly explain why.
Magically, ‘The Lion King’ still can transport me back to be a kid once again where I didn’t have to be concerned about world affairs for two hours and forty-five minutes. I was putty in the hands of these extraordinary performers right from the exquisitely sounding ‘Circle of Life’ where the old mandrill Rafiki (understudy Mukelisiwe Goba whose calling voice reverberated in the auditorium) summons the animals from Pride Rock to greet Mufasa, the animal king (Gerald Ramsey) and Queen Sarabi (Chante Carmel) in their presentation of their young cub to the kingdom. Later we learn of Mufasa’s evil brother Scar (Spencer Plachy) who is mighty upset at his lost chance of becoming king of the animal world.
Through a series of misadventures and dark moments, Mufasa and Sarabi’s young cub Simba (Walter Russell III) is forced away from his family and must flee to the remote regions of the animal kingdom. It is here where Simba meets many friends and possible enemies who are out to destroy him. As in all Disney stories, order is restored and happiness reigns supreme.
I still marvel at the exquisitely intricate puppetry details from co-designers Julie Taymor and Michael Curry, and the way the performers execute the smooth flow in their creation of the various characters. Truly beautiful artistry work still here even with a touring company and all the stops the production makes across North America.
I remembered when I saw ‘The Lion King’ in Toronto years ago at its sit-down production at the Princess of Wales and the stampede of animals which left an indelible mark on my memory. Absolutely stunning to watch then and I wondered if that same feeling could be re-created. The combination of Steve Canyon Kennedy’s sound design with the combination of puppetry and costumes did re-create for me a thrilling moment to watch on stage.
James Dodgson’s Music Direction is crisply clear for the most part. There were moments where I closed my eyes just to hear and to listen to the various melodies. Again, I’ve pointed out in previous articles the importance of balance between the orchestra and the singers. There were a few moments where the orchestra drowned some of the choral numbers, but that can be forgiven as it didn’t destroy the spectacle witnessed. Garth Fagan’s choreographed numbers are still top notch with two noteworthy moments at the top of Act One and Act Two with ‘One by One’.
Director Julie Taymor’s vision of creating lifelike and realistic animals is a joy to behold as I believed every single one of them existed. Greg Jackson’s Zazu is deliciously cheeky and wisecracking. As best friends Timon and Pumbaa, Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz are a smart-ass wisecracking combination of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick with a dash of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The three hyenas - Shenzi, Banzai and dim-witted Ed - are synergistically captured through the performances of Martina Sykes, Keith Bennett and Robbie Swift.
As opposing brothers Mufasa and Scar, Gerald Ramsey and Spencer Plachy are match for match at performance level intensity especially when their masks face each other during intense moments. One of Mr. Ramsey’s strengths at this opening night were those moments he shared with the young Simba especially in the moment of ‘They Live in You’. Mr. Plachy and Mr. Jackson improvised a most opportune moment at the beginning of Act 2 involving the Toronto Raptors basketball team which brought the house down (and the gentlemen did not break character at all in the process. Professionalism indeed).
Jared Dixon and Nia Holloway as Simba and Nala offer genuine portrayals of the young lovers and their affection for each other is truly felt in ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’. As the young Simba and Nala, Walter Russell III and Celina Smith are saucy, bold and brash as the young cubs.
To see so many smiling faces around me made this evening’s entertainment an enjoyable one. I certainly do hope that all future touring companies will provide that same joy and zeal of the Circle of Life which moves us all through despair and hope, faith and love.
I wish this North American touring company of ‘The Lion King’ further opening night successes as they move forward. I checked their website to see their next several stops, and they are going to be busy right up until 2020.
Joe Szekeres and John (godson)
The Touring production of Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ continues to August 4 at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West. For tickets you may purchase online at www.mirvish.com and 1-416-872-1212.
Production running time is two hours and forty-five minutes approximately with one intermission.
Photo of the Cheetah and Giraffes of the Opening number by Joan Marcus.
Music and Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice; Additional Music and Lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer; Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi; Scenic Design by Richard Hudson; Costume Design by Julie Taymor; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Mask and Puppet Design by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry; Sound Design by Steve Canyon Kennedy; Hair and Makeup Design by Michael Ward.