BWW Review: THE LION KING at Rochester Broadway Theatre League
For over 25 years Disney's The Lion King has been wowing audiences and delivering its powerful message about the circle of life, first via the 1994 animated movie and then the 1997 stage adaptation, which subsequently went on to win six Tony awards and--through myriad productions on nearly every continent on Earth--be seen by millions of audience members of all ages. For the next two weeks this larger-than-life show will be at Rochester's Auditorium Theatre, and it's one that the whole family will surely never forget.
After 25 years in the Disney canon The Lion King likely doesn't need a plot synopsis, but in case you've somehow missed the celebrated classic after all this time (or you've never read Hamlet, after which it's very loosely based): The Lion King follows the adventures of the young lion Simba (Richard A. Phillips Jr.), the heir of his father, Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey). Simba's wicked uncle, Scar (Spencer Plachy), plots to usurp Mufasa's throne by luring father and son into a stampede of wildebeests. But Simba escapes, and only Mufasa is killed. Simba returns as an adult (Brandon A. McCall) to take back his homeland from Scar with the help of his friends Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz).
While the animated Lion King is a cinematic treasure that shares all the important thematic elements of the musical, nothing compares to seeing it on stage. What makes the staged version of The Lion King so striking are the ways in which a sprawling, expansive story that encompasses huge swaths of the African savanna can be believably captured within the confines of an indoor stage using state-of-the-art set design, special effects, and masterful puppetry. Everything from gazelles and vultures to elephants and giraffes are brought to life through the unparalleled artistry of the production's ensemble cast members. A particularly stunning sequence is the opening song "Circle of Life", which features elephants and other animals making their way up the aisles to the stage.
Despite some cast members being a part of this production for 3+ years, the actors in The Lion King all give heartfelt, knockout performances, and while all have their moments, the standout is without a doubt Buyi Zama, whose Rafiki acts as the spiritual pulse of the show, delivering humor but also doing everything from swinging across the stage on a vine to speaking an impressive six African languages throughout the production (Swahili, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Congolese and Xhosa). Plachy's Scar also delivers a powerful performance for exactly the opposite reasons: he's conniving and maniacally evil, particularly in the dark musical number "Be Prepared."
The standout feature of any production of The Lion King is almost always the choreography, and this production is no different. From the opening sequence to the final bows, this production's ensemble dancers weave the story and flagship musical numbers together with unbelievable feats of movement, displaying a stunning and athletic mixture of modern and Afro-Caribbean dance.
Speaking of the choreography, a special treat for those who attended Friday night's performance was seeing the show alongside Rochester legend Garth Fagan. Some may know that Fagan--whose globally renowned dance company has long called Rochester home--was the choreographer for the original Broadway production of The Lion King, earning him a Tony award and cementing his status as one of the world's most celebrated and virtuosic choreographers. Fagan took to the stage after the curtain call to express his gratitude to the audience and to praise the cast, who were noticeably emotional over the significance of performing the show for the man who is one of its most important creative forces.
I don't throw around the term "breath-taking" lightly (or often), but no other term more accurately describes seeing The Lion King on stage. Between the music, choreography, costumes and moving storyline, it's a theatrical experience that will stick with you long after leaving the theatre. It's playing at the Auditorium Theatre until January 5th; for tickets and more information, click here.