BWW Review: THE LION KING is an Old Cat, but a Good One, at Benedum Center
Has there ever been a more immediately iconic opening line- no, opening WORD- of a musical than The Lion King opening with a half chanted, half screamed "Naaaaaaaants?" (The actual lyric, which you've been singing, and singing wrong, your whole life, is "Nants ingonyama, bagithi baba," which means "father, here comes a lion. The chorus responds "Sithi um, ingonyama," meaning, "yes, that is a lion." Please write in and let us know what you assumed these words were as a kid and/or when you were drunk screlting them in East Carson Street.) Only A Chorus Line's "Again" can come close, but the sheer power in the imagery and in co-composer Lebo M's voice have made the "Nants Ingonyama/Circle of Life" chant into an instantly recognizable, perhaps slightly racist, meme, certain to pop up or be imitated any time African wildlife, the savannah, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo are mentioned.
Everyone loves The Lion King. I love The Lion King. But I love just about everything, and actually enjoy quirky avant-garde theatre with high-tech and low-tech tricks galore (which director Julie Taymor and choreographer Garth Fagan have stuffed the show with), and I like the work of Elton John, Hans Zimmer and Lebo M on their own and together. But it's still an unlikely blend to be as beloved as it is: at least a third of this musical is in unsubtitled, untranslated African languages, it breaks the fourth wall with corny cruise-ship comedy and then hits you with extended interpretive dances, and the ensemble repeatedly switches between portraying theatrical animals, portraying animal-like humanoid dancers, and portraying actual people from Africa in native and modern costume. (I'll admit I didn't always get this specific choice; when the cast suddenly appeared, dancing in African garb, during an upbeat number, I wasn't sure if there was a sociopolitical point being made that I just wasn't understanding.)
The cast was impeccable, with Gerald Ramsey's powerful but centered Mufasa as the clear standout. Ramsey never once tries to be James Earl Jones, because who can, but allows the warrior-priest dichotomy to shine through in his movement, fighting and meditation. Jared Dixon, as the adult Simba, has a huge tenor voice and a superhero physique, looking and sounding as much like Hercules as Simba. From the minute he swings onstage on a rope, to his climactic and energetic dance solo in "He Lives in You," Dixon injects a sense of chaotic athleticism into a show that was sometimes mannered and balletic. Buyi Zama, singing and chanting and sometimes clowning as the baboon shaman Rafiki, keeps to the wilder side of the show's energy, cackling and humming and carrying much of the non-English dialogue and song capably.
On the more mannered and less interpretive and riff-heavy side, Spencer Plachy's Scar may be a little more camp and less threatening than Jeremy Irons was, but no one in the cast has a greater showing of their physicality and puppetry skills than he does. Forever alternating with small body movements between an anthropomorphic stance and an animal stance, with his puppet head/headdress snapping into place as a mask and then bouncing back up to be a hat with a slight change in posture, Plachy is chameleonic in the role. Just as good is Greg Jackson as Zazu, who similarly alternates between playing the role with his rod puppet and embodying the role physically. If some of the cornier wink-wink jokes go to him, it's to his credit that they land... as does the single dirtiest pun in any Disney stage musical, which got an enormous laugh. And speaking of dirty, Martina Sykes, Keith Bennett and Robbie Swift make a meal of the hyena trio, particularly in the extended comedic sequence in which Shenzi scares herself into a laughing fit which apparently brings her to the point of orgasm.
If it sounds like I haven't given the women of the cast much credit, it's because Rafiki and Shenzi are featured bit parts, and Nala, the only large female role, has very little to do either- not that Nia Holloway does not absolutely slay "Shadowlands" and her duet with Jared Dixon on "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." There is, however, a caveat: the female ensemble of dancers and of singers drive the show's sound, just as the lionesses are the hunters and gatherers of the pride. I can't imagine the signature Lion King sound without a huge, female-based choir, and of course that is what we have here.
One final shout-out is in order: this show's unsung heroes are the percussionists Stefan Monssen and Reuven Weizberg, playing and grooving visibly on either side of the stage. Amid the stale jokes and the still-touching story about maturity, fatherhood and responsibility, it was these two guys and their enormous rig of ethnic hand percussion that kept the show dancing. They also got some of the biggest applause of the night during bows, proving that maybe the audience DOES know exactly what makes this show work after all.