BWW Reviews: Disney's THE LION KING - An Ideal Summer Outing
THE LION KING definitely roared into Houston. After seeing the current touring cast it is no surprise that Disney Theatrical Production's production of THE LION KING is enjoying its fourteenth year on Broadway (it officially turns 15 on November 13, 2012). The show is abundantly rich and enjoyable for children, but will mesmerize adults as well. The stage adaptation keeps our favorite moments from the film, while adding depth through additional dialog, musical numbers, and fantastic costuming. I have seen all three of the touring casts that have come through Houston, and in my opinion, this one is hands down the best that we have had the pleasure to see.
While watching this cast, the best adjective that came to mind was majestic. This particular cast, more than any other I have seen, understands and emanates pure majesty in every movement and word. This was made especially clear during the opening procession, which is guaranteed to make everyone cheer and smile, during "The Circle of Life" and "The Lioness Hunt." Every member of the cast, especially those in the ensemble, has to completely commit to every character from blades of grass to cheetah to hyena to convey majesty to the audience so powerfully. This cast goes above and beyond in their commitment to the characters they portray.
Buyi Zama as Rafiki is enchanting in her wisdom and ability to connect to the audience from the opening of "The Circle of Life" to the closing of the show. She is the very best Rafiki I have ever seen. Her performance is consistently humorous and deeply insightful. She shines in all the right moments, especially delivering the much needed powerhouse vocals on "Nao Tse Tsa" (called "Rafiki Mourns" on the cast album). Every moment she is on stage is delightful.
Scar, as portrayed by J. Anthony Crane, is the ideal villain—someone you will simply love to hate. His Scar is a master manipulator and plotter, which adds great dramatic irony and foreshadowing to the show. He expertly sings his way through "Be Prepared" and its reprise, but truly shines in my favorite scene from the show, "The Madness of King Scar." He makes the number relatable without making Scar an empathetic character, which is a true display of his skill and craft.
A true surprise and pleasure in the show is Mark David Kaplan's Zazu. Mark David Kaplan handles the Zazu puppet so naturally, that the audience is treated to both a fully realized emotional character in both the puppet and the actor's own facial expressions. He masterfully handles Zazu's humor and sardonic wit, making the character his own and not a rehashing of Rowan Atkinson's portrayal in the film. I was so impressed by Mark David Kaplan, that I actually found myself missing Zazu's cut number "The Morning Report."
Nokubonga Khuzwayo is a true treat as the adult Nala. Also, she is the first South African actress to Grace Houston as Nala, which adds a nice layer of authenticity to the role. Her "Shadowlands" is pristine and the best I have heard. Instead of attacking the song with melancholic heaviness like others before her have, she approaches the beginning from a much lighter, introspective angle and builds to the melancholic heaviness and strength that is required for the number's soul-touching end. These touches were pristine in their use, really allowing Nokubonga Khuzwayo to stand out as one of the best actresses to be cast as Nala. During the Houston run, she will be leaving the U.S. National Tour to join the German company as Nala, so I truly hope that many of you will have the chance to see her before she departs.
As adult Simba, Jelani Remy, is incredible. He perfectly embodies the youth that is required to portray Simba, as he fully discovers himself and his place in life. Like Nokubonga Khuzwayo, he adds his own unique spin on the character, including his take on "Endless Night" which also had a softer and more introspective beginning than I have previously heard. Jelani Remy does a superior job with the role.
I would be remiss not to acknowledge how humorous and awesome Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz were as Timon and Pumbaa. Their chemistry on stage seems perfectly natural, as if they really grew up together as best friends. As a team, they perfectly work together to remind the audience of the film characters; however, they have made them their own as well—making their portrayals memorable and fantastic.
Keith Bennett's Banzai, Rashada Dawan's Shenzi, and Robbie Swift's Ed are hilarious as the three lead hyenas. Each one adds a unique charm to the characters as well. It is always a pleasure to see how different actors handle these roles and the little changes they will use to make them their own. Sadly, in my opinion, one of their best moments has been cut from the show. I really found myself missing their dialog about having worms during the "Be Prepared" scene.
Dionne Randolph was supremely regal as Mufasa. He does a fantastic job in the role, making the audience sad that he simply cannot have more stage time than he does. However, he does leave a lasting impression that will touch the soul.
As Young Nala and Young Simba, Sade Phillip-Demorcy and Adante Power were exceptional. They are the driving force behind the first act, and both handle their deeply moving emotional journeys with the skill of their adult castmates. Even though they are children portraying children, they are consummately professional and fantastic to watch in their roles.
The whole of the ensemble is incredible. This collection of skilled performers never really gets a break during the show. They serve as set pieces and characters, constantly singing and dancing during the production. It is truly incredible how hard they work and how effortless they make their jobs seem. Standing out in the ensemble were the fantastic talents of Ntomb'khona Dlamini, Portia Magwaza, Sihle Ngema, and Maurica Roland.
The costuming is immaculate in this production and has been lauded since it opened on Broadway. The designs are reminiscent of the African tribal style while providing nods to the original cartoon film. Each piece is stunning and magnificent, especially the elephants, giraffes, and gazelles. Likewise, the lighting and set design elements are faultless. They expertly convey the emotions that the music and actors evoke.
Every technical aspect of Disney Theatrical Production's THE LION KING is spectacular, and sure to please. Add in this truly remarkable cast, and this current production is simply a must see. I doubt a single person would not be impressed and moved by at least one element of the show. Additionally, THE LION KING is rich in thematic material, especially in discovering who you truly are. Yet, this show's handling of the themes of family makes it an ideal summer outing for Houston families.
Broadway Across America – Houston's production of THE LION KING runs at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts' Sarofim Hall until August 12, 2012. For tickets and more information please visit http://houston.broadway.com/shows/lion-king-ss/ or call (713) 315 – 2525.
Also, please be aware that the Theatre Development Fund and Broadway Across America – Houston in cooperation with The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts will be doing a special Autism-Friendly Performance of THE LION KING on Saturday, July 28, 2012. For more information about this performance please visit http://www.thehobbycenter.org/index.php?q=node/979.
Jelani Remy as "Simba" and the ensemble in "He Lives in You" from THE LION KING National Tour. ©Disney