BWW Review: THE LION KING Celebrates Life and Spectacle at The Peace Center
In the summer of 1997, I took a trip to St. Paul, Minnesota, to visit friends. I lived in Chicago at the time and there was little chance I'd be back to Minnesota's twin cities area any time soon. So I suggested to our party the idea of going to see a new show that was premiering in Minneapolis. I'd read a couple of articles about the show's director, Julie Taymor, and her interesting approach to the source material. I'd seen - and enjoyed - the movie the play was based on, but my friends pooh-poohed the original movie as just another tool of the patriarchy and, even worse, a kiddie movie. Come on, they said, why would we want to bother seeing a stage version of The Lion King?
Twenty years later I still regret missing that production, missing the chance to experience the beginning of a phenomenon that would last until - and beyond - today.
I've now seen the show twice, and it continues to impress. The stage is filled with color and detail, with movement and music and life. The Lion King is a grand celebration of the magic of theatre and, yes, the circle of life.
The story outline is familiar to just about everyone by this point, so I'll simply remind you of some of the show's many high points.
It opens, of course, with the iconic chant of Rafiki (iconically played by Buyi Zama) calling the animals to Pride Rock. There she announces the birth of Simba (JorDan Williams), first son of King Mufasa (a commanding Gerald Ramsey) and his wife Sarabi (Sophia Stephens). It's an amazing opening number that immediately envelops the audience in the spectacle of the show's puppetry as well as its powerful, rhythmic music.
Mufasa's brother, Scar (a deliciously devious Mark Campbell) and a trio of comically vicious hyenas (perfectly embodied by Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Andrew Arrington, and Robbie Swift) teach us to "Be Prepared."
The dynamically comic duo of Timon and Pumbaa (longtime show veterans Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz) teach Simba their memorable philosophy, "Hakuna Matata." Later, they witness an adult Simba (Dashaun Young) and adult Nala (Nia Holloway) rediscover each other even as they ask, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"
And Rafiki guides Simba to his destiny in the goosebump-inducing "He Lives in You."
But as wonderful and inspiring as the music is, the true star is the spectacle itself. Extended moments like the terrifying stampede sequence and the extended parade and pageantry of the opening number become permanently etched in your memory.
The Lion King has become one of the most seen theatrical productions on the planet, and it's not hard to understand why. The detail and artistry of the puppetry is simply astounding, with even stars in the sky and grass on the ground becoming breathing, flowing entities of their own. Performers like Hirshfield, Cordileone and Lipitz work seamlessly with their puppet alter egos, truly bringing a cartoon to life in a way that enhances the experience. And even amidst the jaw-dropping visuals, some of the most spectacular moments are all very human - from the amazing dance numbers (choreographed by Garth Fagan) to the hard-working, high-energy ensemble working to create every living feature of the jungle.
I may have missed the premiere, but I'm glad I eventually got to experience The Lion King. This is a work that speaks to generations, with adults and children alike becoming enveloped in the highly visual storytelling. It's a journey worth reliving again and again.