Review: THE LION KING at Des Moines Performing Arts

This masterclass in pupetry and storytelling continues at Des Moines Performing Arts Through April 16.

By: Apr. 03, 2023
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Review: THE LION KING at Des Moines Performing Arts
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September 14, 2021, is a day I will never forget. After an 18-month break due to Covid, Broadway reopened. Something special happened that morning. On Good Morning America, there was a special performance from "The Lion King" that had the cast in places around New York City, awakening the city and Broadway, leading to the cast gathering in Time Square, all during a performance of the opening song "Circle of Life." After an eight-year break in Des Moines, you can finally experience the breathtaking opening of "The Lion King" again during its multi-week run at Des Moines Performing Arts. Iowa is happy to have the show back again if the audience is any indication.

The Lion King
Darian Sanders as Simba
Photo by Deen Van Meer

In case you've been living under Pride Rock since the 90s and missed the successful animated movie that the musical is based on, "The Lion King" tells the story of a cub named Simba. The show opens with storyteller Rafiki announcing the birth of Simba, the future king, and giving the first look to all the kingdom's animals. Simba shares with his uncle Scar how Mufasa, Simba's father, shared where he could and couldn't go in the kingdom. Scar lets it slip that the area is an Elephant graveyard, and Simba decides that he wants to go. What he doesn't know is that it is a trap Scar has set to try and get rid of Simba. When that doesn't work, he sets up a stampede to eliminate Mufasa and Simba, making him the king. While Mufasa dies during the stampede, Simba survives. Scar convinces Simba that it's his fault and he has to run away. Will Simba return to take his rightful place as the king? That you will have to attend the show to find out.


You would think that growing up with the animated film and seeing the show multiple times in the past, one would get sick of hearing this story. Something about the story still feels fresh all these years later. One of the parts of "The Lion King" I've always loved is how it's embraced being a family show. One way we see that is by letting the kids in the audience respond to what they see on stage. This came in a few verbal responses from kids in the audience throughout the night that showed just how engaged they were with the performance. One of my favorite responses was a nonverbal response at the end of the performance. At least one kid in the audience was raising their Simba plush they had purchased along with Rafiki during the final chorus of Circle of Life. Both of these moments for me added to the beautiful experience that the show is.


What makes "The Lion King" a continued success comes from one name, Julie Taymor. Her vision and fingerprints are seen in multiple places during the show, from directing to costumes and her work with Michael Curry on puppetry. Walking into the theatre, I always look forward to the show's opening, which alone is worth the ticket price. This time, I could focus on all the different puppetry styles throughout the show. Each one, from shadow puppet to rod puppet, hand puppet to full body puppet, comes together to tell the beautiful story we see onstage. When the puppetry, blocking, and Garth Fagan's amazing choreography comes together, it's one of my favorite moments of theatre.

The Lion King
Gugwana Dlamini as Rafiki
Photo by Deen Van Meer

The cast of storytellers on stage does a fantastic job of bringing this story to life for the audiences. Mukelisiwe Goba, who played Rafiki at the performance I attended, did an amazing job capturing the audience, even when speaking a language that most of the audience didn't understand. What was great is that you didn't need to know as an audience what it was she said, which made it even more comedic when she asked if the audience understood. I have to give a special shout-out to Jackson Hayes and Jaxyn Demasco, who played Young Simba and Young Nala at the performance I attended. Both did an excellent job bringing these youthful cubs to life on stage. As Simba and Nala, Darian Sanders and Khalifa White deliver some of the performance's most powerful songs and moments during the second act beautifully.

After eight years, it's great to return to the Pridelands. "The Lion King" continues to be a beautiful piece of theatre that you can revisit time and time and notice something new. The gorgeous costumes, stunning puppetry, and fantastic cast continue to tell this story to both old and new generations. Performances continue at Des Moines Performing Arts through April 16. To learn more about the show or purchase tickets, visit the link below.




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