Review: Disney's THE LION KING Rules Once More at OC's Segerstrom Center

The global mega-hit musical based on the 1994 Disney animated classic remains a theatrical wonder, even in this return engagement.

By: Feb. 06, 2024
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Review: Disney's THE LION KING Rules Once More at OC's Segerstrom Center

Now in its 27th year and earning the distinction of being not only the third longest-running show in Broadway history but also the highest-grossing production of all time, Disney's game-changing, Tony Award-winning global megahit THE LION KING has once again taken over OC's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa for another month of performances that continues through February 25, 2024.

Judging by the full house of excited patrons of varying ages and backgrounds that were in attendance during the show's recent Orange County opening night performance, the fervor for this big special "event"—a stage musical adaptation of the studio's 1994 box office hit—clearly has not been diluted by time.

Even today, nearly three decades later, the show remains a remarkable achievement in the high-reaching possibilities of what live theater (with a robust corporate-funded budget) can do: combining gorgeous artistry and smart, creative design with popular, mass-appealing, well-executed elements (something Disney knows how to handle with their films and theme parks), all spearheaded by its chief creative mastermind Julie Taymor, a director notable for her visual acumen in both the theatrical and cinematic mediums. Her ingenious efforts to transform a "kids' movie" into a genuinely artistic, culturally expansive stage show that all ages and demographics can appreciate helped score Tony Awards for herself as a Director and Costume Designer and the show itself for Best Musical.

And, thankfully, it's all still there for everyone to behold.

From that still-stunning, incredible opening production number that will have kids and adults equally mesmerized, to its deeply cultural, expansively piercing musicality throughout, The Lion King Broadway adaptation continues to be a visual and spiritual feast, designed to be purposefully enticing, making it seem like every ticket buyer who shows up is getting their money's worth for the trouble of coming to see a live production of a big-budget musical in an actual theater. The show reminds theatergoers that this live experience—whether it's the first or the tenth viewing—is a worthwhile activity, besting the act of just watching its beloved animated source material from the comfort of their own home.

The Lion King
Darian Sanders. Photo by Deen Van Meer © Disney.

I must say, as someone who has seen this touring production multiple times—with each instance stretched to multiple years between visits—THE LION KING still manages to elicit genuine wonder and awe, and even more so for those attending the show for the first time, who, by show's end, is left thoroughly impressed and overwhelmed by the experience as most first-timers routinely become. That kind of universal commercial appeal (and there's nothing wrong with being so) seems to be built-in to the show, easily earning itself fresh fans each time its touring companies return for a new(er) generation to discover it.

The show's continued impact isn't really that much of a surprise.

Even newbies who've never experienced The Lion King musical in-person may, one is safe to assume, already have some idea about the show's creatively clever staging—via either word-of-mouth, the internet, or perhaps multiple years' worth of media discourse. To wit, The Lion King stage adaptation is an imaginatively unconventional (at the time) re-imagining of the animated film for the stage that utilizes an innovative combination of fanciful puppetry, authentic African visuals and sounds (musically and sonically), beautifully-crafted masks and make-up, culturally-inspired costumes and environments, hypnotic choreography and staging, and, yes, an already familiar story.

With its glorious human-powered animal pageantry and gorgeous theatricality, it's both admirable and impressive that Disney allowed the stage show to take on Taymor's creative, out-of-the-box mandate that is, let's be honest, such a seismic departure from its proven cartoon beginnings.

Its artistry is actually its strength. Easy-to-please kids and the young-at-heart will find the family-friendly antics and visual whimsy a total hoot, while more serious-minded adults will once again be fascinated by the show's clever artistry, witty sophistication, and the not-so-subtle Shakespearean melodrama that bathes the show's surprisingly dark storyline.

And, of course, The Lion King stage musical—thanks mostly to the hit animated film that inspired it—weaves in plenty of already familiar, kid-tested music, composed by rock legend Elton John and his frequent lyricist partner Tim Rice (Taymor, Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Hans Zimmer also contribute additional music and lyrics). Even Hans Zimmer's lush orchestral score from the original movie has been beautifully refreshed for this Broadway iteration, delivering deeper authenticity by adding more African rhythms and choral richness. Smartly deviating from its celluloid origins, this stage adaptation intentionally leans much more into the story's cultural and geographic roots without completely betraying the more animated traits of its inspiration.

The Lion King
Darian Sanders and Khalifa White.
Photo by Matthew Murphy. © Disney

So has anything changed with the touring show since seeing it last—aside from, perhaps, the new cast members out front and the unseen but talented new musicians down in the pit? It's hard to tell, though part of me suspects that maybe some set pieces, costumes, and props were further altered subtly for economic or travel-efficiency reasons (even the opening "parade" of animals going through the audience felt fewer in number compared to the previous times I've seen it, but it might just be my own imagination or my dwindling memory). There's a much more pronounced zippiness to the show that I haven't felt since before my first experience with the show, so I assume—after all these years—that the show has been well-whittled down to become as efficiently run as possible.

With that said, The Lion King, overall—despite still having some forgivable narrative shortcuts and staging issues—continues to be an irrefutably entertaining form of theater, and certainly a wonderful, inspirational way to introduce live musical theater to young patrons. In today's age of being tethered to mobile digital devices, the wonders of theater art seems more important to experience now than ever before.

Like the movie that inspired it, the stage iteration also takes place in the African Pride Lands, an idyllic ecosystem marked by natural beauty, scarce human intervention, and symbiotic harmony, where everything from the trees to the animals all play an important role in the great circle of life.

At its center is a lion "prince" named Simba, whose life story is presented starting from his highly-attended birth celebration/announcement by his proud parents, the King and Queen, atop Pride Rock, all the way up to the birth of his own royal heir after some scandal and struggle. Along the way, the narrative snakes through such themes as jealously, betrayal, family legacy, found family, murder, shame, friendship, love, loyalty, perseverance, and, ultimately, triumph.

The main actors assembled for this current tour are all uniformly superb, supported well by a fairly large, extraordinary ensemble that delivers exemplary singing and dancing talents that extends this show's laudable qualities far beyond just its undeniable visual and euphonic splendors.

Kicking things off with that signature outcry at the top of the show that bellows all the way up to the rafters, Mukelisiwe Goba is just wonderful as Rafiki, the wise but sometimes silly-acting mandrill monkey that serves as the eccentric but sage village shaman. Her soaring vocals in the opener of "Circle of Life" is just spellbinding, which helps set up the show's entire majestic vibe.

Chronicling Simba's journey from young precocious pre-teen to a more mature adult requires the role be embodied by two actors of divergent ages. During the show's opening night in Costa Mesa, the excellent Mason Lawson plays the younger, rambunctious, more playful Simba (a role he shares with another young actor Julian Villela), while Darian Sanders does a terrific job as the grown-up, tortured Simba, who must navigate his nagging doubts and past demons in order to eventually oversee the kingdom his father once ruled.

The Lion King
Peter Hargrave. Photo by Matthew Murphy. ©Disney

Similarly, the role of lioness Nala—Simba's young BFF who would later become his paramour (she's actually pre-betrothed to him)—is also played by two actors to show the character's eventual aging. On opening night, Young Nala was played by the sweet-and-sassy Jaxyn Damasco (a role she shares with Aniya Simone), while the grown-up Nala is taken on by the enthralling Khalifa White, who, I must say, delivered my favorite rendition of "Shadowlands" since first hearing Heather Headley on the original Broadway cast album. It was moving and beautifully done.

As Simba's father, the wise and fair King Mufasa, Gerald Ramsey is certainly a regal presence with every appearance, blessed with a commanding voice that sounds, at times, convincingly James Earl Jones-ish, but, of course, enhanced with a beautiful vocal prowess. His Queen Sarabi, played by Jennifer Theriot, possesses a quiet but stalwart strength that becomes even more stirring in the second act when she stands up admirably to an asshole bully.

Someone as noble and as dignified as Mufasa surely needs an appropriate adversary. Definitely ranks as one of Disney's most shudder-inducing villains is Mufasa's jealous brother Scar, played brilliantly here by Peter Hargrave, who is as eerily menacing as he is conniving and duplicitous—and even more so on stage (his over pronounced gestures and that amazing headpiece that comes down in front of his face on occasion is just… wow). Scar's unrelenting determination to overthrow his brother to usurp the throne not only from him but his young heir feels so much more darker in the stage version (be wary of your scared kiddos), but the character's deliciously sarcastic line readings and reliably witty hamminess still somehow exudes from Hargrave whenever bantering with Simba, or barking commands at his hilariously sinister Hyena minions Shenzi (Martina Sykes), Banzai (Forest VanDyke), and non-speaking Ed (Courtney Thomas on opening night) or Mufasa's uppity hornbill bird advisor Zazu (the very funny Nick LaMedica).

By far the closest character portraits that mirror those in the animated movie are the animals that provide most of the comic relief in The Lion King. Alongside Zazu and Scar's Hyena trio, the stage adaptation also wisely includes—and promotes—Simba's jungle pals, anxious meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and flatulent warthog Pumbaa (John E. Brady), who, believe it or not, are actually even funnier here than in the movie.

The Lion King
Darian Sanders.
Photo by Matthew Murphy. ©Disney

Like LaMedica and his bird counterpart Zazu, both effortlessly comical Cordileone and Brady use fancy puppetry to bring their respective animal characters to life. The comedy duo does such an awesome job animating the heck out of their characters—Cordileone puppets Timon who's literally attached in front of him, while Brady uses his own legs to serve as Pumbaa's front legs—that eventually, these talented human actors sort of disappear and you'll find yourself just looking and reacting to the inanimate animals they're manipulating/voicing. It's just magnificent.

But, of course, it bears repeating that the real admirable draw to the stage production of The Lion King is, of course, its theatrical surface richness: from Richard Hudson's gorgeous scenic design and Taymor's lavishly cultural costumes and puppets, to Garth Fagan's hypnotic, Tony Award-winning choreography and its grand, sweeping music here performed by a superb orchestra conducted by Karl Shymanovitz—the show is designed to wow, and, unsurprisingly, it handily accomplishes this with almost every showy trick it can muster.

There's a good reason the show is touted as the "world's number one musical." As successfully commercial and populist as the show is, its artistic merits beneath all that surface sheen easily patches up any shortcomings it may have deep down.

Never seen the show? Well, now is as good a time as any, especially as it hangs around in So. Cal for the rest of the month. Experience the show now before its gets its eventual downgraded iteration that waters down its Disney-fied aspects.

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter / Instagram / Threads: @cre8iveMLQ *

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Photos by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Performances of DISNEY's The Lion King continues at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA through February 25, 2024. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy




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