BWW Review: THE LION KING Reigns at Saenger Theatre
Many throughout the world have seen the iconic story of The Lion King, the 1994 Disney musical animation that has captured the hearts of young and old alike, but to see it on stage is a whole other experience entirely.
THE LION KING has come to reign at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans through January 29 and has proved without a shred of doubt why it is one of the longest running Broadway musicals of our time.
While touring companies have been through to the Saenger several times since the show's original opening on Broadway in 1997, this was the first time I have had the pleasure of seeing it in my home state. And it was certainly worth the evening as I was treated to a breathtaking production.
THE LION KING is not a mere musical based on an animated movie. It is a combined experience that encompasses many theatrical genres including music, dance, puppetry, shadow play, projections, and excellent stage effects. Add the timeless characters of Disney with their elaborate costumes and command of the stage, and this show is a colossal standout.
Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi wrote the book for THE LION KING, which features the movie's original music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice. Additional music and lyrics for the stage version were contributed by Lebo M. Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer.
The story follows young lion cub Simba who is anxious to become brave and strong like his father Mufasa, king of the Pride Lands. In shadows, Simba's uncle Scar plots to usurp his brother and place himself as king of the lion pride. When tragedy strikes, Simba flees, vowing never to return to his home. Only after he matures from his missteps can he fight back against his uncle and ascend the throne to take his rightful place as king.
This latest production, directed by Julie Taymor with choreography by Garth Fagan, is a splendid fusion of culture, music, and dance. The iconic opening of a golden sunrise over the savannah while hearing African music invokes goosebumps of anticipation to relive a piece of childhood nostalgia. And what could be better than to make people feel as if they are part of the production as well? As the story shifts into "Circle of Life," the aisles fill with ensemble singers and dancers in abstract animal costumes. You get the feeling that you are a member of the Pride Lands, come to see the presentation of Simba. It's a recurring element that really adds a new layer to the audience's experience.
The production comes to colorful life with African-styled masks and costumes consisting of beautiful beadwork and flowing designs. The puppets in the show draw upon the Japanese puppetry form of Bunraku, bringing to life large animals such as 18-foot giraffes manned by actors on stilts. Shadow projections appear during the performance to enhance the musical's action. The energetic dancing is heightened by the overlapping rhythms of the musicians, who were situated on unique platforms, and the fluid movement of the brightly colored costumes. This show is a vision that can rival any Cirque du Soliel show.
Most importantly, the favored Disney soundtrack is provided with more on stage depth through additional music by South African songwriter Lebo M and others. Does anyone else remember Disney's "Rhythm of the Pride Lands," the 'sequel' soundtrack to The Lion King? Several of the songs on the album have become incarnations in THE LION KING, including "He Lives in You," and are fantastic additions to the show as it contributes to the African influences of the original film.
When it comes to the acting, some may consider it to be cartoonish. While the actors are portraying anthropomorphized animals in costume, they're still originally cartoon characters. However, much of the weight of the characters' actions or feelings are lost in how lines are delivered, which was disappointing. I would rather see over-acting than hear important lines thrown away.
As Mufasa, Gerald Ramsey's portrayal reminds you why lions rule in the Pride Lands as his voice self-amplifies in the crowded theater. A somber silence fell when he met his fate during the wildebeest stampede.
Mark Campbell, as the villainous Scar, comes across a bit lackluster when compared to his film incarnation. Whereas the film's Scar is menacing, Campbell's Scar is almost too foppish. It was hard to believe him to be at all threatening.
The character of Zazu, a horn-billed bird puppet with his attached puppeteer (Drew Hirshfield) dressed like a blue and white circus clown was a personal favorite of the audience. His humorous movements and added lines such as "That wasn't in the cartoon!" were quite delightful and well-played. When Scar orders Zazu to sing a happy song, Zazu breaks into an off-key version of "Let it Go," to hilarious effect when Scar bemoans, "Anything but that!"
Rafiki, played by Buyi Zama, is always a standout performance with her portrayal of the baboon shaman. She has a unique way of creating spiritual magic, leaving the audience to suspend their disbelief with the power of her singing voice. Or by either breaking the fourth wall or comically interacting with the audience. Whenever Zama does something, you're immediately enamored. I could not pick a more perfect choice for a storyteller.
Timon and Pumba, played by Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz delivered many laughs to children young and old in the audience. Hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed (Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Keith Bennett, and Robb Sapp) were humorous cohorts as they bungled Scar's orders.
THE LION KING still has the power to awe audiences. If stunning visuals and lively music fit your bill, then head over to the Saenger Theatre for this epic musical. Now excuse me, but I got to call my dad.