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BWW Review: LION KING THE MUSICAL at AsiaWorld-Expo

BWW Review: LION KING THE MUSICAL at AsiaWorld-Expo The long-awaited international tour of Disney's THE LION KING made its Hong Kong premiere at AsiaWorld-Expo on Friday 20th December 2019. After two preview performances, the musical officially opened with roaring success.

Directed by Tony & Olivier Award winner Julie Taymor, many will know of the Hamlet-inspired story adapted from the 1994 Disney Animation. The musical sees Simba, the young lion cub and heir to the throne of Pride Rock, being manipulated by his evil uncle Scar after his father's death. Fleeing from his homeland and responsibilities, Simba meets and makes friends with Timon and Pumbaa, the wisecracking meerkat and warthog duo, whilst back home, Scar becomes king over the now drought-stricken land. Years later, a chance encounter reunites Simba with his childhood friend and sweetheart, Nala, whom encourages him to return to Pride Rock and take back his rightful position as king.

Hailed as one of the most impressive openings in musical theatre, a quiet BWW Review: LION KING THE MUSICAL at AsiaWorld-Expo chorus of chatter can be heard from the audience as the excitement takes over when the curtains rises and Rafiki sings out the first notes of the iconic "Circle of Life". Fortunately, the chatter fades quickly as audiences are left in awe, watching elephants, rhinos and other African animals parade through the stalls in the opening number.

To give a glimpse into the magnitude of ingenuity in the show's costume and puppetry designs, audiences can see models attached to moving carts, used to mimic the elegant galloping of gazelles; and to portray the motion of giraffes, actors wander on stage in stilts, wearing headdresses, and being supported on long canes, blending themselves into the animal itself. The clever designs of Julie Taymor and Michael Curry are not limited to only the animals - ensemble members wearing grass-like headpieces work with the bird puppets to give an impression of the vast African savannah.

BWW Review: LION KING THE MUSICAL at AsiaWorld-Expo

Produced by the Michael Cassel Group, this touring production gathers a company of 100 with the cast representing near 20 nationalities, many of whom have starred in the musical in various countries across the globe. Making up the principal cast, from South Africa there's Ntsepa Pitjeng (Rafiki), Mthokozisi Emkay Current touring castKhanyile (Mufasa), Amanda Kunene (Nala), Mark Tatham (Ed), Candida Mosoma (Shenzi), Pierre Van Heerden (Pumbaa), Björn Blignaut (Banzai). From the UK, there's Jordan Shaw (Simba), Antony Lawrence (Scar), and Nick Mercer (Timon). In addition, there's André Jewson (Zazu) coming from Australia, and a pride of Young Simbas and Nalas, from the Philippines and Indonesia: Santino Juan Santiago, Marcus Cabais, Jayden Lionel Ingram, Danielle Elise Albano, Zoe Arabella Garcia, and Waynehart Claire Geonzon.

The most notable performances for me came from the puppeteers - André Jewson, Mark Tatham, Candida Mosoma, Björn Blingnaut, Nick Mercer and Pierre Van Heerden. These provided most of the comedy from the show and their seamless performances and fluidity between speech and puppetry made audiences truly believe in the characters despite the puppeteers being clearly visible on stage.

In terms of the book (Roger Allers), the musical adaptation differs slightly from the animation, incorporating several changes and storyline revisions. Examples include changing Rafiki's gender to a female, and the addition of conversational scenes such as the parenting talk between Zazu and Mufasa which adds to depth of the characters. In addition, the stage production also featured musical numbers that weren't part of the original animation like BWW Review: LION KING THE MUSICAL at AsiaWorld-Expo "Morning Report" (removed from the original animation), "Chow Down", "One by One". What's also brilliant on the music front is that the musical achieves a perfect balance between the works of Elton John and Tim Rice, and the African rhythms brought about by Lebo M, as shown in musical numbers such as "The Lioness Hunt", "They Live in You", "Shadowland" - rich, spine-tinglingly beautiful ensemble chants and singing performed in 6 different indigenous African languages (Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana & Congolese).

Besides the above changes, the touring production also updated the script and jokes to ensure that it remains fresh to audiences after 22 years - The reference to Disney's Frozen was much appreciated by audiences of all ages, resulting in laughter across the arena. And to make the show better suited to local audiences, this production included local cantonese sayings like "Mm goi sai!" and references famous Mong Kok's Bird Market where Zau was threatened to be sent!

With most touring theatre productions that come to Hong Kong being staged at the Lyric Theatre in HKAPA, the choice of venue was an interesting one. Used primarily for concerts, the 4,000-seat AsiaWorld-Expo Arena isn't purpose-built for musical theatre, and being used to the intimate 1,200 seater at the Lyric Theatre, the Expo certainly came across as too spacious and wide open. Whilst the long aisles in the stall section allowed for more audience members to experience the animal parades and entrances closely, the vast area of stall seating also meant the distance between the stage and those seated in the back of the arena was far greater.

To ensure audiences from all seating areas could see the action, two large screens were set up either side of the stage to project close-ups of the actors. The intention of this may have been good, but sadly, this did become a distraction, detracting from the overall live theatre experience. At times, it did feel like watching an NBC live musical taping - just without the comfort of your own home! Indisputably, the screens did allow audiences to have a better view of the on-stage action, as well as the award-winning costume designs, headpieces and puppetry. However, to not miss out on the bigger picture, I found myself constantly switching back and forth between screen and stage, and it was a shame because the the gorgeous scenic designs by Richard Hudson and lighting by Donald Holder weren't as well received and impactful as it should have been in a usual theatre setting. One of the most visually iconic scenes in the production which relied heavily on projections was "The Stampede". In order to see the full effect of Geoff Puckett's ingenious designs, it was so important for audiences' attention to be focused on the stage rather than the screen.

Meanwhile the exact reason for playing at the Expo is unclear - whether it be due to venue availability or ease of accessibility for puppets and staging - one thing that is certain, is that despite the limitations of a large arena, this musical is still brilliant, and is one that must be seen. Book, costume, puppetry, set design, and score, all prove why it holds the title of the 3rd longest running Broadway show, but for best viewing experiences, a ticket for a front-half stalls seat would be recommended.

The Lion King Musical runs until Sunday 12th January 2020 at the AsiaWorld-Expo, Lantau, Hong Kong. For tickets and info visit: http://www.hkticketing.com and http://lionkinginternational.com/hong-kong/

BWW Review: LION KING THE MUSICAL at AsiaWorld-Expo

BWW Review: LION KING THE MUSICAL at AsiaWorld-Expo

BWW Review: LION KING THE MUSICAL at AsiaWorld-Expo


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