BWW Review: THE LION KING at Hobby Center
With its textual references to William Shakespeare's HAMLET, the age old tale of THE LION KING is one that no one needs to go in depth about. But I will. Because it deserves our study.
In 1994, Disney's animated feature "The Lion King" was the cartoon movie that broke barriers and was popular with adults and children.
In 1997, July, Julie Taymor along with original cartoon creatives Elton John and Tim Rice debuted a Broadway bound music that was sure to revolutionize storytelling. Julie Taymor made her Broadway debut with the LION KING and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning 6.
In 2017, this musical is still packing the house and is probably one of the best musicals I've ever seen. THE LION KING soundtrack was continuously on repeat at Sam Houston State University when I attended. Mostly, because I blared the CD all over the dance building. There was something about the score that went through my ears, clinched my heart and lit a fire in my stomach. The African influences in this show were prevalent throughout and were the perfect layer that took this innovated story to the next level.
With 20 years on the boards, this lavish musical continues to inspire, empower and entertain. With authentic and visceral musical arrangements by Lebo M, THE LION KING is a theatrical jewel that gleams brightly representing the essence of the Motherland- Africa.
Julie Taymor's approach to this story brought in traditional methods but she added puppets. The actors in this production completely embodied the animalistic physicality and the puppet attached to their heads accented their performances. There were times that the actor shifted focus to the puppet and this is what I call the theatrical genius of Julie Taymor.
But every creative in their own right is a genius in this show, from the finely orchestrated score to the set/ costume design to the choreography. Coming from a musical theatre background heavily rooted in dance, I was like a child again. Garth Fagan expertly fused West-African dance with every modern dance style under the sapphire sky and it all worked. There were moments when I felt I was at an Alvin Ailey concert or watching Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham or Lester Horton dancers. Weaving in animal characteristics into the movement was pure genius. From the subtle slow burn (Fosse terminology) from the lionesses to the canine-like movements by the hyenas, Fagan's choreographic paint brush was expertly flourished all over the canvas of this musical. This entire musical danced from the conductors bouncing to the beat to the percussionist in the sky boxes. My head bobbed and my foot tapped the entire time.
In order to have a show that transcends time, you must cast it with actors who are talented and have a complete understanding of the text and know how to keep their performances fresh without taking away from the production. Dashaun Young's performance as Adult Simba was by far my favorite of the night! From his entrance to his final bow, he was completely invested in this character. Playing this role is demanding physically as well as vocally and this artist showed why he was cast for this part. His vocal prowess was expertly executed on "Endless Night." At the start of this song I leaned over to my mother and said, "this is where we are going to see if he has the chops and he delivered." The nuances in Young's performance celebrated the memory of my friend Jason Riaze who originated the role. Young was multifaceted and played this role with passion and strength.
From the end of Act, I to the end of the show Young along with the ensemble told a story that will forever be etched in the minds and hearts of those seated in the Sarofim Hall. Along with Young, there were other standout performances by Nia Holloway who played Adult Nala and Drew Hirshfield who played Zazu. Young Simba played by JorDan Williams and Young Nala played by Grier Burke were both vibrant and full of energy. There was a moment when Young Nala and Young Simba were playing and they hit a section from JuJu on That Beat and I nearly went crazy! I loved how the dance supervisors keep things current in this production! Rafiki played by Buyi Zama's performance was marvelous. Her comedic timing was spot on and there were moments that I reflected on "The Click Song" by Miriam Makeba. The only downfall of this production was the casting of Mufasa. Now don't get me wrong Gerald Ramsey had great moments, but vocally I missed the deep and bold textures such as what Samuel E. Wright brought to this role. There were times where I felt as if Ramsey could have played Simba. Now, of course, this isn't taking anything away from this actor by any means but as a musical theatre purist, there are certain things I want from iconic roles in the landscape of American Musical Theatre.
THE LION KING is a musical for the entire family. I had the pleasure to take my mother and watching her reactions to the larger than life puppets walking down the aisles to the overall spectacle of this production was priceless. It was Julie Taymor who said, "There is incredible power in the arts to inspire and influence," Hearing the childlike reactions from the adults and the jaw-dropping faces from the kids in the audience was beautiful. I left this production humming "Hakuna Matata" and I was filled with inspiration. This is what the theatre is for folks! I hope that you take some time from this hot summer and go purchase the hottest ticket in town.
THE LION KING continues through July 23, 2017 at The Hobby Center, Sarofim Hall, 800 Bagby Street. For more information on THE LION KING, please visit thehobbycenter.org.