BWW Reviews: DISNEY'S THE LION KING Returns to Kennedy Center and Dazzles with Artistry
There's something about Disney's The Lion King that sets it apart from movie musicals turned Broadway shows. That 'thing' is not only on display on Broadway - where the musical has run for over fifteen years and counting - but in the national touring production that's playing Washington, DC's Kennedy Center yet again. Featuring a wonderful combination of dazzling and unique artistry, Elton John and Tim Rice's strong score, and many strong performances, even those who have been there done that and seen The Lion King before can likely still find something to appreciate in the current national tour. One reason one might consider revisiting it is the artistic elements are as awe-inspiring as ever and well, even I - your resident theatrical curmudgeon - still can marvel at the melodies at play in "Circle of Life," "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," and my favorite numbers written expressly for the stage "They Live in You" and "Shadowland."
The 1994 movie and subsequent Tony Award-winning stage musical (featuring a book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi), of course, transports us to Africa where the lion runs supreme. Young Simba (Jordan A. Hall at the performance I attended; Jelani Remy plays the older Simba) looks up to his father Mufasa (L. Steven Taylor) who reigns over all. Mufasa is committed to teaching his young, vivacious and independent son all the lessons he needs to learn so that he's ready to succeed him as king when the time comes. Complications arise with the plans Mufasa has set for Simba thanks to Scar (Patrick R. Brown) - Mufasa's jealous and devious brother - who believes he deserves to rule over the kingdom. After a series of devastating events, Simba leaves the world he knows in search of his own destiny and finds some new friends in social outcasts Pumbaa (the very entertaining Ben Lipitz) and Timon (the equally talented comedian Nick Cordileone) along the way. A chance encounter with a lioness from his past, Nala (Nia Holloway with Nya Cymone Carter playing her younger self at the performance I saw) brings him back to where he needs to be to do his father proud and carry out his legacy.
In this production, several of the principal cast members have standout moments which highlight how touching this musical can be when it involves a cast that's committed to delivering the story in an honest way. Chief among them is Mr. Taylor who not only has the vocal talent to make "He Lives in You" a standout musical moment, but has a stage presence that's perfectly suited for such a noble, wise, and selfless king of the Pridelands. Tshidi Manye, as the mystical Rafiki, likewise, starts us off right with a vocally powerful and emotion-filled rendition of "Circle of Life" and manages to make us care about not only the elaborate puppets that are entering the stage (impeccably designed by director and costume designer Julie Taymor along with Michael Curry) from the aisles, but the message she's conveying in her song of perpetual hope. Holloway's commanding, textured, and emotionally resonant vocals serve her well in "Shadowlands" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" even if diction proved to be a bit of an issue in the former. As Simba, both Hall and Remy have the ability to move about the stage with the ease and energy that's necessary for such a physical role and have that kind of quality that makes you want to root for them to overcome all obstacles.
For me, on opening night the only major letdowns were Patrick R. Brown and Andrew Gorell as the king's right hand bird, Zazu. I didn't feel that Mr. Brown fully captured Scar's neuroses and conniving nature - nor did he showcase a voice that was powerful enough to sell his big number, "Be Prepared." When the ensemble cast shows up Scar in that number and he fades into the background, there's a problem. Likewise, I found that Gorell relied too much on shtick and while some scenery chewing is appropriate for the role, his performance came off as someone working really hard for a laugh rather than letting it come naturally from trusting the material he's been given to deliver.
These missteps aside, it must be stressed that the incredible ensemble cast of dancers, singers, and puppeteers is reason enough to see this show. Every production number proved to be a winner for me even beyond the oft discussed "Circle of Life" opening. The lionesses, for example, owned the "Grasslands Chant" (Lebo M.), moving and singing together as one. The choreography (Garth Fagan), some borrowed from traditional forms of African dance, was expertly performed and every moment was seamless and perfect.
Yet, let's get back to what makes Disney's The Lion King so special. Every artistic element works together as one and nothing comes off as cheap theme park entertainment like some later Disney Broadway musicals (The Little Mermaid, anyone?). There are the relatively simple moments that feature actors as the natural grasslands, alongside spectacular ones like the Stampede that ultimately leads to Mufasa's death. They're different, but both powerful. Using an array of ingenious creative elements borrowed from other art forms beyond the sometimes paint-by-the-numbers world of musical theatre, the scenes like the one that captures the Stampede unfold in an organic, unforced, and somewhat unexpected way. Scenic design (Richard Hudson), lighting design (Donald Holder), sound design (Steve Canyon Kennedy), and stunning orchestrations (Robert Elhai and David Metzger) - well-performed by a mixture of touring musicians and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra conducted by Rick Snyder - work together to create a true work of art.
And that's what this musical is - art. I am personally glad I revisited this one after over a decade. I caught the Broadway production at the New Amsterdam from the last row of the balcony and I have to say I didn't quite see what all the fuss was about for a variety of reasons. Now, I do. It's something to be appreciated for what it is.
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes including an intermission.
Disney's The Lion King plays through August 17, 2014 at the Kennedy Center's Opera House - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.
Photo: Courtesy of Disney's The Lion King official website.