There’s a reason why Disney’s “The Lion King” is the highest grossing musical of all time. Why it’s been running for more than two decades on Broadway. Why it continues to sell out venues its played multiple times before.
And it’s good in a way that is wondrous and magical. It’s the kind of show where from the second the animals start parading through the auditorium to the stage, the audience is there for it. “That is so cool” said one woman seated near me on Thursday night. A look at the young faces beaming all around me confirmed that she spoke the truth. It is so cool.
The stage musical successfully takes a beloved children’s cartoon – one inspired by one the greatest plays every written, “Hamlet” – and makes it its own thing. Using dramatic stage effects and with brilliant use of puppetry, “The Lion King” tells a familiar story in way that is vibrant and new.
Set in the Pride Lands on the African savanna, “The Lion King” tells the story of Simba, who must grow from headstrong cub to the king of beasts. His father Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) rules the Pride Lands with a benevolent hand, allowing the ecosystem to thrive. Mufasa’s scheming brother, Scar (Spencer Plachy) can barely contain his jealousy over the young cub’s eventual coronation. So he works to get the cub and his friend Nala in danger. Eventually, he sets up Simba to be caught in a stampede and takes advantage to move on Mufasa and scare Simba into exile.
There, Simba is befriend by a meerkat named Timon (Nick Cordileone) and a warthog named Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), who instruct the young cub in the ways of “Hakuna Matata,” aka not worrying about stuff. Lipitz, who has worn his oversize warthog costume for more than 5,000 performances on tour and on Broadway, is a real treat as the flatulent pig. Cordileone wears Timon well, manipulating the oversize meerkat in his adventures.
In Act I, our young lions are portrayed by young actors. As young Simba, Richard A. Phillips proved to be a charming performer. His “I Can’t Wait to be King” was well sung. As young Nala, Celina Smith is a pint-size powerhouse in “Nao Tsa Tsa,” sung with Simba and the baboon Rafiki. Rafiki, played by Buyi Zama, brings a real power to the show, and humor, too. Once she begins singing in Zulu during the opening number “The Circle of Life,” you know you’re in for something good.
Grown up Simba and Nala, portrayed by Jared Dixon and Nia Holloway, find each other again, and Nala persuades Simba to return to Pride Rock to fight his uncle, who has let the hyenas destroy the Pride Lands. The two have wonderful voices. Dixon is affecting in “Endless Night,” while Holloway is simply lovely in “Shadowland,” performed with Zama and the ensemble.
As Scar, Plachy has the show’s juiciest role, and he handles it with aplomb. He carries as much smooth menace in his voice as Jeremy Irons did in the movie. He’s sneaky and sinister, and his first big number, “Be Prepared,” is delicious. As Mufasa, Ramsey is loving and kind, and I quite enjoyed the rapport he shared with his on-stage son. He sings well, too, bringing a nice touch to “They Live in You.”
As good as the performances are, it’s the staging the makes “The Lion King” stand out. Director Julie Taymor created a brilliant new world when she helped bring “The Lion King” from the screen to the stage. So many movie-to-musical adaptations are content to simply mirror their cinematic origins. “The Lion King” was not, and audiences around the world are grateful. The “He Lives In You” reprise in Act II, with a star-dappled Mufasa talking to his son, is a sight to behold. The stylized shadow puppets featured throughout lend some 2-D magic to a live stage show. The way the rising sun seems to ripple in the distance. It all still works.
One of the great things about “The Lion King” is that it’s a perfect “first musical” for younger viewers. My 9-year-old son was enthralled the entire time, and he loved the animal parade and the “One by One” performance, featuring a host of flying, circling birds over the auditorium, to begin Act II. And my 14-year-old daughter, whose been my theater companion for the past couple seasons, was smitten. I’ll end with her opinion:
“Saw this magnificent show last night. One of the BEST musicals I have ever seen live! I sat there marveling over how much hard work must have gone into the puppetry and costuming, and, amazingly enough, the actors were still able to move around and dance! Not enough people talk about the amount of effort that goes into shows like these, especially this one. The most captivating moments were those that show the natural habits of the savanna animals interpreted and implemented through traditional African dances and songs. And of course there were those iconic, memorable songs from the original film, but in my opinion, the best numbers were those that weren’t in the Disney movie. Perfect casting; beautiful sets, costumes and staging; intriguing choreography; 10/10 overall!”
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