For theatrical entertainment, The Lion King still ranks as a scorching success and explains why it is probably the most successful of stage shows.
Decades after the similarly successful movie was turned into a live musical in 1997, the simple story of the lion that reclaims his kingdom from his evil uncle with a “circle of life” quasi ecological theme (and the best-known song) is still packing venues including this latest Wales Millennium Centre outing.
The cast does a fine job with the roles and singing which is at its best when it sounds more “Africa” than “Elton John”. Lebo M’s melodies and Hans Zimmer’s orchestral compositions deserves as much credit as the pop singer knight.
A theatre critic apparently once said the story was similar to Hamlet, but I doubt whether many audience members compared it to anything more than the film version.
In a nutshell, cub Simba idolizes his lion king father Mufasa, regally performed by Jean-Luc Guizonne, who tells his son of his destiny and responsibilities over the plains of Africa from Pride Rock. Pantomime baddie Scar played by Richard Hurst, Mufasa’s brother has his own plans for royal destiny which does not involve Simba, who flees after his father’s death. Brought up by the warthog and meercat, played by Alan McHale and Carl Sanderson, until his cubhood friend (now also grownup Nala acted by a nicely voiced Nokwanda Khuzwayo) tells him to grow a pair and reclaim his kingdom – and save the ecology of the plains which is being destroyed by Scar and his ravenous hyena allies. The grownup Simba, performed as a wide-eyed likeable hero by Stephenson Ardern-Sodje, rises to the task, rapidly producing a new lion cub in the process. I don’t think ecology is actually uttered in the show but we get it.
The ensemble musical numbers are the most effective, especially combined with the choreography, while the songs They Live in You/He Lives In You and Endless Night are the finest musical theatre numbers, giving their singers the opportunity to show their singing strengths. Nokwanda Khuzwayo as adult Nala comes into her own during the evocative Shadowland.
I am now sure how much some of the characters are reliant on audience members’ knowledge of the film versions (I am thinking mostly of the comedic warthog and meercat). Other characters have strong, standalone identies. Matthew Forbes as a posh sounding loyal retainer Zazu, for example, carved out a distinctive presence on stage.
However, the production totally belongs to the stunning costumes, masks and puppetry creations of director Julie Taymor and her mask and puppet co-designer Michael Curry. Richard Hudson’s scenic designs, gorgeously lit by Donald Holder, and the choreography of Garth Fagan, complete a creative team that brings to the stage a show that demonstrates how magical live theatre can be. It really is a beautiful piece of stage craft, such as when the sun rises on the Serengeti Plains. One downside is that the opening is so fabulous, when the animals appear around the Donald Gordon auditorium and make their way to the stage while birds circle and the colours of Africa fill the space, that nothing else compares with it in the show for impact.
It is a sensational technical achievement, never faltering in entertainment value, and a delight for any age.
Seen through the eyes of innocence and wonder this is a visual feast that defies too much analysis – just enjoy the lionesses, giraffes, rhinos, elephants, wildebeest and hypnotic swirling birds in flight.
Of course, with Disney, it is all nature reduced to theme park (even the dismembering of a gazelle is tastefully done), but it is all harmless and joyful.
It might be called Lion King but the star of the show was Xhosa-speaking mandrill Rafiki, sung by Thandazile Soni, (apparently the director wanted a bigger female contribution to the musical so changed the character’s gender), above, with the young lion cub characters also outstanding, giving lovely, charming performances.
Images Johan Persson