Friends were startled when I told them I’d never seen any version of The Lion King. What can I say? I’m just not really a Disney guy. The recent dead-eyed, soulless “live-action” remake hadn’t done anything to spark my curiosity, and so I was going in cold to this touring production of Broadway’s second-longest-running, and by far most lucrative show.
I gingerly entered the lion’s den, with little expectation. The rousing opening salvo by the baboon Rafiki (here reimagined as a shamanic priestess) in Swahili - “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba! / (Here comes a lion, father!)” - coupled with the stampede of animals that it heralds, though, was like an electric jolt.
From the stage wings and from the back of the theater, a Noah’s Ark of wildlife arrives to welcome the new heir to the throne. Birds swoop, puma slink, giraffe saunter and a huge elephant marches through the audience to complete the crowd of animal onlookers. This is an immediately awe-inspiring introduction to the audience of the puppet-lead artistry that graces the entire production.
Six actors live inside that near life-size elephant, and the rest of the savannah is equally thrilling. I join the multi-generational audience in being nothing less than agog as the story begins. You’ll be familiar with the plot, which draws from Hamlet as a young prince navigates a perilous route to the throne, protected by a loving king father but beset by danger from a scheming uncle who feels overlooked.
The songs come thick and fast, and although Elton John and Tim Rice are the marquee names, the work and atmospherics provided by the African composer Lebo M. are the heart of the show, and are further brought to life by two live rhythm sections.
The ingenious animal costumes, employing puppetry that mixes simple light and shadow with the most elaborate exoskeletons, are a complete joy. Even when the actors are clearly visible, their commitment to movement and mimicry never detract from the aesthetic, and in fact it creates an even more dream-like visual.
The young Simba (Jaylen Lyndon Hunter) is a revelation, while scheming uncle Scar (Peter Hargrave) is played pitch-perfectly, bitter and sinister with a splash of camp. The entire ensemble is nothing but charismatic, with stand-outs for me being the comedy provided by avian consort to the king Zazou (Nick LaMedica), and the meerkat and warthog who befriend young Simba (Tony Freeman and John E. Brady as Timon and Pumba respectively. Gugwana Dlamini (Rafiki) steals every scene she’s in and Khalifa White’s Nala is a whirlwind of badassery.
In short, it’s a joyous extravaganza, and the presence of legions of children (who often hilariously react to onstage dialogue) reminded me of the pantomimes of my home country. The production levels, though, are ones that show a satisfying portion of the ticket price right up on that stage, and the visual logistics of the wildebeest stampede alone are worth the price of admission. Even Disney-sceptics such as this old warthog left blown away by the showmanship, delivered without a trace of cynicism, and with storytelling and truly inspiring spectacle to the fore. (PO)
Broadway in New Orleans continues at The Saenger Theater, with Six on November 29th
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