BWW Review: After 21 Years, THE LION KING is a Royal Treat at Marcus Center
The Lion King certainly isn't Broadway's best-kept secret. It's not an underdog. It doesn't inspire thoughts of revolution or gracefully break your heart. For 21 years, Disney's The Lion King has been a smash hit and Broadway's gateway drug to musical theater. After seeing this 2020 North America tour, I'm happy to report that after two decades, this show is still a royal treat.
Since its premiere in 1997, The Lion King has risen to 25 global productions seen by 100 million people worldwide. The show has been performed in nine different languages: English, Japanese, German, Korean, French, Dutch, Spanish, Mandarin, and Portuguese. Right now, there are productions on Broadway, in London's West End, in Tokyo, Madrid, Hamburg, and tours across Japan, the U.K., and our own North America. The Lion King is the highest-grossing entity -- exceeding any film, Broadway show, or other entertainment -- in box office history.
It's easy to see why this show is so universally beloved. It takes all the best elements of the Disney film -- the characters, the songs, the story -- and finds a way to elevate it and turn it into its own form of art. Although much of the show directly follows the film's script, it's the additional elements and the way those elements are interpreted for the stage that makes The Lion King so worthwhile even 20 years later.
Upon this most recent viewing, one thing that stood out to me is how the women have so much more to do, relative to the film. First, Rafiki is female (played splendidly here by Buyi Zama), and the tribe of lionesses are critical rather than a cliffnote. We see the lionesses prowling the pridelands in "Lioness Hunt," their choreography on fire with strength and ferocity. Later, time is devoted to their grieving of the death of Mufasa and loss of young Simba in a lament that's so beautifully sorrowful it makes your heart ache and eyes water. The bond of the lionesses is one of my favorite parts of the show.
Other favorites: The use of shadow puppetry, the way "I Just Can't Wait to be King" explodes with color, and the grasslands' chant. The choreography seems to change and evolve over time, and it's fun to try and pick out what's different. For instance, the first time I saw The Lion King, there were aerial dancers during "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." This time, I was struck by a veritable lioness-hyena dance battle for pride rock.
Then there are the costumes by Tony winner Julie Taymor. These designs are a force unto themselves. From what I can tell, they haven't changed much in 21 years, but why mess with perfection? Whether its the characterful movements of Zazu's neck, the mechanics of wheeled antelopes, the shift of Pumba's eyes, the lioness tears, capes, and beaded bodices -- there is always something new to notice. It's clear the costumes are revered as, arguably, one of the most essential elements of the entire stage production.
As for the characters, I've never seen a weak cast at any production of The Lion King. This North American Tour is no different. There are strong performances across the board, hardly one that is more or less exceptional than the others. Sitting second-row, I could see up close that the kids have the requisite amount of spunk, and their adult counterparts -- Brandon A. McCall and Kayla Cyphers as Simba and Nala, respectively -- have fantastic chemistry. McCall's stage presence is actually a particular standout, his prowling movements catlike, powerful, and athletic.
Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) and Scar (Spencer Plachy) are both fantastic, as expected. That's the thing: I always expect greatness from The Lion King. To have a cast without a weak link among them. To blow me away with choreography and costumes, even if I've seen it before. The Lion King never fails to meet every one of these great expectations, and the show currently on stage at the Marcus Center is no exception.
Photo credit: Deen Van Meer