Review: THE LION KING at Ohio Theatre

Disney musical still produces a child-like sense of wonder.

By: Jun. 16, 2024
Review: THE LION KING at Ohio Theatre
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Perhaps one of the best ways to watch the Disney musical, THE LION KING, is to see it as a child or watch it with one. I remember watching my son and daughter’s wide-eyed sense of wonder as they took in the pageantry, the music, and the inventiveness of how cartoon animals could be transformed into something real on the stage.

Even though my kids are 24 and 28 now, THE LION KING still invokes that mystery and that feeling of wonder. The Disney musical will have an extended stay in Columbus, running June 12 through July 7 at the Ohio Theatre (39 E State St in downtown Columbus).

Under the direction of Andrew Flatt, Thomas Schumacher, and Anne Quart, the musical follows the well-trodden path of the 1994 Disney movie. Young lion Simba (a role split by Julian Villela and Bryce Christian Thompson) grows up in the royal shadow of his King of the Jungle father Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) and Queen Sarabi (Jennifer Theriot). His planned ascension to the throne takes a turn when his father is killed in a stampede, carefully orchestrated by Mufasa’s evil brother Scar (Peter Hargrave). After his uncle convinces Simba he caused the stampede, the lion who would be king runs away to the jungle, is befriended by Timon the Meerkat (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa the Warthog (John E. Brady) and grows into a teenager (Darian Sanders).

After the Pridelands are destroyed under the mismanagement of Scar and his three henchmen hyenas Shenzi (Martina Sykes), Banzai (Forest VanDyke) and Ed (Robbie Swift), Simba is convinced by his girlfriend Nala (Khalifa White) and Rafiki (Mukelisiwe Goba) to battle Scar and become the Prideland’s rightful and reluctant king.

THE LION KING is the fourth CAPA offering in its eight-show season to be based on a movie, following musicals MRS. DOUBTFIRE and MOULIN ROUGE!, and the play CLUE.

Right before Simba and Young Nala (a role that is split between Leela Chopra and Ritisha Chakraborty) descend into the elephant graveyard, Zazu (Nick LaMedica) exclaims, “This doesn’t happen in the movie!” While at times THE LION KING seems like a note for note repetition of the movie, what pushes the musical into new territory is the costume design of Julia Taymor, a stellar group of actors, and of course, an empowering soundtrack by Elton John and Timothy Rice with help from, Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Taymor, and Hans Zimmer.

THE LION KING’s opening number of “Nants Ingonyama” and “The Circle of Life” is perhaps one of the most breathtaking beginnings to a musical I have ever seen.  As Rafiki, Goba’s voice pierces the darkness to call the animals to Pride Rock for the announcement of the birth of Simba. She is complimented by percussionists Stefan Monssen and Reuven Weizberg on either side of the stage while actors portraying birds join the refrain from the box seats above the stage. Slowly a parade of animals converge with a pair of elephants walking down the side aisles of the theater while panthers and gazelles join the masses coming in from stage left and right. Taymor’s costumes accent a wide variety of animals with a bicycle being used to show the galloping of the gazelles. There were some misfires here and there. Standing behind Pumbaa to conduct his movement, Cordileone is clad in a shiny green suit that makes him look like a miniature version of the Jolly Green Giant, sans the vegetables.

In some shows, elaborate costumes could outshine the actors, but that was not the case in THE LION KING. The confrontation between Scar and Mufasa looked like something from HAMLET or KING LEAR. Hargraves’ Scar is menacing and yet at the same time, can deliver the drollest of lines. Ramsey’s Mufasa and Theriot’s Sarabi are both regal and relatable as parents. Chopra and Villela are playful and charming as Villela seems blissfully unaware of his uncle’s evil plans for him.

LaMedica is perfect as the haughty Zazu, the King’s right-hand man. He got one of the night’s biggest laughs as he is trapped in a cage of bones singing, “Nobody knows the troubles as I’ve seen …” Scar asks him to shift his tune, Zazu ruefully croons, “Let it go, let it go” from FROZEN. Scar glares at the bird and bemoans, “Anything but that!”

Like most of the Disney musicals, THE LION KING has an amazing soundtrack to choose from, “A Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata,” and “Be Prepared” to mention a few. Disney enlisted Lebo M., Mancina, Rifkin, Taymor, and Zimmer to augment the already solid soundtrack. Unfortunately, Zazu’s “Morning Report,” which was cut from the movie only to be added to the musical, was deleted. However, Goba and White’s reading of “Shadowlands” and Sanders’ “Endless Night” stack up to anything on the original cast recording.

The costumes, the acting, and the music do more than make up for the familiar territory of the plot of THE LION KING. Since its debut on Broadway in 1997, this Disney musical has proven itself to be more than capable of producing a child-like sense of wonder in its audience, no matter how old they are or how many times they have seen it. You don’t have to be a child to enjoy THE LION KING, but it certainly helps to see the musical with one.


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