For sheer spectacle and artistic excellence, I can't think of many shows I'd rather see than Broadway's take on the beloved animated film Disney's The Lion King. And while the musical is based on and takes its storyline from the original movie, the stage production is its own fantastic journey -- one that honors the original story and the African savanna where it is set.
The "Circle of Life" is the story at the center of this thoroughly engaging tale. Rafiki the monkey and Zazu the dodo guide the audience through the story, each in their own fashion. As the leader of his pride, Mufasa, the acknowledged king, is respected and admired by the animals that share his kingdom, which stretches as far as your eyes can see. Naturally, the birth of his son Simba sees all the creatures from far and wide gathering to celebrate. Everyone, it seems, is excited to meet the princely young lion cub. Well, almost everyone. Scar, Mufasa's younger brother, would prefer he were the king and, with clearly devious intention, he schemes and plots his ascendance.
Frightened by the untimely death of his father, the gullible Simba heeds Scar's advice and runs away from the pride. Scar jumps at the opportunity and, thinking Simba has died as well, installs himself as king. Somewhere on the other side of the jungle, however, Timon, the meerkat, and his companion Pumbaa, the warthog, have rescued Simba and are helping him survive and mature. Though it was never his intention, a chance meeting with the lioness Nala, his childhood friend, leads Simba to realize his destiny and return home.
Mukelisiwe Goba is enchanting as Rafiki, introducing the story in a language filled with clicks, smiles, and body language. The scene completes the imaginative opening sequence and transitions us from spectacle to story. Gerald Ramsey's Mufasa is strong and stern, a fair king who's able to enjoy frequent playful outbursts with his son. His death, while dramatic, is presented with a kind touch. You may shed a stray tear or two during the show, and this is one of those moments. Tony Freeman is humorous in voice and body movements as Zazu the Dodo, the eyes and ears of the kingdom, and Sophia Stephens, as Sarabi, Nick Cordileone, as Timon, and Ben Lipitz, as Pumbaa provide outstanding, often comic, support.
The all-important test of maturation and ability is the battle between Simba and his uncle Scar for the crown and the heart of Nala. Mark Campbell is particular, petulant, preening, and always plotting as Scar, the coordination of his exaggerated pointing, stretching, and turning with his mask is marvelous to watch. Dashaun Young counters with a Simba that is bold, street smart, and muscularly graceful, while Devin Graves and Jordan Wilson provide a younger reflection of Simba that's believably similar in tone and movement. Nia Holloway gives Nala a decidedly fierce and independent attitude, with athletic movements that are fluid and connected. Grier Burke and Meilani Cisneros demonstrate the same stubborn attitude and curious nature as young Nala.
Disney's The Lion King musical is a unique theatrical experience for the opening parade of animals alone. The staging re-imagines the well-known story with African rhythms, culture, and language, fitting changes that enhance the show. The songs, originally composed by Elton John and Tim Rice, receive new arrangements and adaptations by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer that more seamlessly blend with the African influences. Modern dance choreography by Garth Fagan fully articulates and emulates the graceful movements of wild animals; the dances are acrobatic and bursting with expression. Finally, exquisite puppetry captivates and delights. Birds fly, giraffes lope, gazelles leap, and elephants march across the dessert plains with expert synchronicity and form.
The set design, lighting, and costumes expertly capture the colors, textures, and sense of the African plains, and the actors truly disappear into their characters. The combination of choreography, costume and make-up, and actor is, for the most part, phenomenal; though I wish Timon the meerkat was better integrated. That was, however, my only serious quibble in an otherwise fabulous production.
The resulting show is filled with a sense of awe that lingers well beyond the curtain. Suitable for all but the youngest and most sensitive family members, the production fills the fabulous Fox Theatre with color, light, sound, and action. Many characters enter, speak, and exit throughout the theater, an unusual but effectively immersive touch. Disney's The Lion King, running through May 7, 2017, is a singularly unforgettable experience. The music is engaging and entertaining, the story told with a deft touch, and the animals vibrate with joie de vivre in a magical, memorable production.