BWW Review: THE LION KING at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
Walt Disney Theatrical produced a musical stage adaptation of their mega-hit animation The Lion King. The musical opened on Broadway in 1997 featuring songs from both the movie and Rhythm of the Pride Lands, which include new compositions by Elton John and Tim Rice. The musical became one of the most successful in the history of Broadway, claiming the title of 3rd longest running Broadway show, winning numerous global theatre awards, and performing to over 90 million audience members worldwide. It is still running on Broadway today and is presently enjoying successful tours in North American, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand and South Africa. How lucky we are that the Van Wezel is hosting the production in Sarasota for three weeks.
Known for its visually stunning sets, characters, costumes, and iconic songs known by young and the young at heart, who doesn't love the story of Simba, (Swahili for "lion"). When you hear the African choral harmonies and the drums placed on both sides of the stage start to thump, get ready for the pageantry of creatures large and small joining characters onstage from their entrances placed throughout the theatre. I hope you can catch it all through the tears that will well up in your eyes over the magnificence you are beholding. Disney knows how to grab your attention in the first few minutes of the show with masterful staging and eye-catching marvels. The Lion King is a stage magic spectacle whose life lessons will capture your heart. And don't think everything of a sizable scale, such as the life-size elephants or the18-foot giraffes, is the only marvel that will grab you. You'll find a cute little friend in a scene featuring a tiny mouse silhouette that scurries his way through the African savannah. Another tribute to Disney's savvy artistry of presentation.
As the story goes, we join the animal kingdom on Pride Rock in the Pride Lands of Africa, gathered for the presentation by Raifiki (Buyi Zama) of King Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) and Queen Sarabi's (Chante Carmel) newborn cub, Simba (Richard A.Phillips Jr. as Young Simba). Mufasa shows Simba the outstretched kingdom and explains to him the responsibilities that he will inherit someday as king. He also tells Simba about the "circle of life" which connects all living things. Not all present are happy about the new king-to-be. Simba's Uncle Scar (Spencer Plachy), Mafasa's younger brother, has plans to take over the throne. He tricks Simba and his friend Mala (Celina Smith as Young Nala) into entering the forbidden elephants graveyard. There, three hyenas that are friends of Scar's attack them. Mufasa rescues them after his servant Zazu (Greg Jackson), a hornbill parrot tells him where they are. Mufasa teaches Simba another life lesson - that the great kings of the past watch over them from the night sky, just as one day he will watch over Simba.
Scar sets another trap for Mufasa and Simba, drawing Simba into a ravine where his hyena friends move a herd of wildebeests into a stampede. Scar tells Mufasa the danger that awaits Simba, knowing the King will rush to save his son. Simba is saved but Mufasa falls to his death off the ravine. Scar tells Simba he is to blame and to leave the kingdom forever. Scar tells the hyenas to kill Simba but he escapes. Scar returns to the pride explaining that Mufasa and Simba were killed in a stampede and declares himself king.
Simba is raised in the desert by Timon the meerkat (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa the warthog (Ben Lipitz), who live under the motto "hakuna matata" ("no worries" in Swahili). When Simba saves them from a hungry young lioness that turns out to be his boyhood friend Nala (Nia Holloway), Nala and Simba (Jared Dixon) fall in love and she urges him to return to the pride. His homeland now has become barren and dry under Scar's rule. Simba is visited by the ghost of his father who tells him to take his rightful place as king. Realizing that he can no longer run from his past, Simba decides to return to the Pride Lands.
Upon his return Simba pins Scar to the ground and forces him to reveal the truth to the rest of the pride. They tumble and Scar is attacked and killed by the hyenas, which overheard his attempt to betray them. Afterwards, Simba takes over the throne as the much-needed rain begins to fall. Later, Pride Rock is restored and Rafiki presents Simba and Nala's newborn cub to the kingdom, continuing the circle of life.
Richard A. Phillips Jr. as young Simba is a joy to watch. He knows his lines, hits his marks, sings beautifully and has stage presence. Celina Smith as Young Nala is equally impressive in her part. Both of these young actors were very comfortable in their demanding roles. Look out Broadway!
Jared Dixon is handsome, strong and believable in his portrayal as the adult Simba. Nia Holloway was cast beautifully as his friend and love interest. Their vocals were beautiful together and Miss Holloway just has a glow about her. Scar was portrayed with all the finesse, sarcasm and rock star charm that Spencer Plachy could muster. He was witty and evil and so perfect for this part. Gerald Ramsey as King Mufasa was stately, self-assured and distinguished, as you would expect the king of the jungle to be. He gave off a bold and powerful presence in his acting and his vocals, yet he displayed a kind and gentle side as a loving husband to Sarabi and mentoring father to Simba. Chante Carmel was beautiful as Sarabi, a devoted wife to Mufasa and doting mother to Simba. I would have liked her role to be bigger and bolder.
Greg Jackson as Zazu was adorable and funny as the redbilled hornbill that acted as the Mufasa's and Simba's advisor. Never wanting to impose, he got his point across in a respectful way that exuded his fondness of the king and his son. Ben Lipitz as Pumbaa the flatulent warthog was lovable and ever positive about life. He was so much fun to watch in his costume. His pal Timon the meerkat played by Nick Cordileone knew how to find trouble or cause it. They were a perfect match, playing off each other and entertaining the audience.
The entire huge ensemble were spectacular in everything they sang and every move they made. What is so impressive is that Disney craftily allows both actor and puppet character that they are wearing to be visible throughout the production. Masks are subtly faceted to performers heads and with the slightest dip they can raise or lower the mask. It's brilliant.
The special effects are too numerous to list but one that stood out for me was when the watering hole dried up before our very eyes. I won't tell you how it was done. You really need to see this production in all its glory. If you are only going to see one theatrical production this year, The Lion King is the ticket.
The latest update about the The Lion King saga is that it is slated for a new film release directed by Jon Favreau and produced by Walt Disney Pictures. It is a photo-realistic computer animated remake of Disney's animated 1994 film of the same name. The film stars the voices of Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé, and James Earl Jones. The film is scheduled to be released sometime in July of 2019.
For more information about the The Lion King musical visit www.lionking.com.
For more information on tickets to The Lion King and other upcoming shows at the Van Wezel visit www.vanwezel.org.