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REVIEW: The Lion King (National Tour/Orpheum Theatre)

Mukelisiwe Goba as Rafiki in The Lion King North American Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Lion King has touched down at the Orpheum Theatre for a five-week run. This show not only famously adapts the hit animated musical movie to the stage, but manages to raise the show to new artistic heights in the process of adaptation. The Lion King is one of the few Broadway shows that began its initial run in Minneapolis, having tried out here in 1997 before opening on Broadway that same year, eventually winning six Tony Awards. Although the touring companies have been at the Orpheum several times since then, this time was the first time I have had an opportunity to view the show since its original run in 1997. Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi wrote the book for this musical, which features the movie’s original music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice. Additional music and lyrics for the stage version was contributed by Lebo M. Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer. This latest production, directed by Julie Taymor with choreography by Garth Fagan, is still a breathtaking production.

Aaron Nelson (Simba) and Nia Holloway (Nala). Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Aaron Nelson (Simba) and Nia Holloway (Nala). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Lion King transcends the category of a Broadway hit musical. It’s an experience of total theatre featuring an exuberant collage of music, dance, puppetry, shadow play, projections, ebullient costumes, pageantry, songs, great characters, and audience interaction. It is an authentic work of intercultural connectedness. Taymor brings to the production the use of African-styled masks and costumes inspired by African traditions of beadwork and flowing designs. Taymor drew upon the Japanese Bunraku puppetry style to create large puppets like five-foot elephants and even taller giraffes, operated by costumed teams of puppeteers visible to the audience. Projections of shadow figures reminiscent of ancient Southeast Asian shadow theatre appear during the performance to add layers of action.

Most importantly, the popular Disney soundtrack is provided with onstage depth through the incorporation of additional music by South African songwriter Lebo M and others. The new songs remind one of LadySmith Black Mambazo, the group from South Africa that collaborated on Paul Simon’s Graceland album in the 1980s. The enthusiastic dancing is heightened by overlapping polyrhythms and the flowing movement of brightly colored costumes.

The stage design, projections, and lighting of the production recalls abstract and stylized African designs. Julie Taymor’s and Michael Curry’s mask and puppetry design is already famous for its large, stylized animal puppets representing the species of the African savannah. The puppeteers are incorporated in the design wearing costumes that blend with the puppet’s design. The movement of the animals portrays the iconic element of each animal’s movement and manners.

The main characters, Mufasa, Simba, Sarabi, Nala, and Scar are quite anthropomorphized (walking on two feet) in costumes with tails, headdress and masks. Young Simba stands out as the only character without either a mask or headdress. Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa and Robbie Swift as the grown up Simba portray very powerful figures showing why lions are deemed to be kings of the jungle. Nia Holloway as the grown up Nala portrays a gutsy spirit that makes one wonder why she does not take over as the new monarch.

Nia Holloway as Nala with the Lionesses in The Lion King North American Tour.
Nia Holloway as Nala with the Lionesses in The Lion King North American Tour.

The character of Zazu is presented as a horn billed bird puppet with an attached puppeteer (Drew Hirshfield) dressed like a black and white circus clown. The clown sometimes puts in his two-cents with asides like: “That wasn’t in the cartoon!” When Scar orders a caged Zazu to sing a happy song, the clown (as Zazu) breaks into a loud refrain of “Let it Go,” (an update from the original “It’s a Small World”) to hilarious effect when Scar groans: “Anything but that!”

Rafikki, played by Buyi Zama, is a special gem in this performance as she breaks the fourth wall and comically interacts with the audience. She is obviously on another plane of consciousness reflected in her musical language and with just enough storytelling to move the story of Simba along. Timon and Pumba, played by Nick Cordileone and Robbie Swift, though rather agreeable in this production, do not fully come off as cute or funny on stage as they do in animation.

One marvelous example of adaptation of action from film to stage is the cascade of animation techniques used simultaneously to visualize the deadly stampede of the wildebeasts. Upstage a scroll unwinds with drawings of distant running wildebeasts. At mid-stage, several wheels rotate wildebeast figures up and down as if running in a stampede. Downstage, performers dressed as wildebeasts surround young Simba threateningly.

The final fight scenes that leads to the show’s conclusion comes off as rather anti-climactic. After two-and-a half hours, the show is unable to sustain the dramatic suspense needed for an exciting ending. One exception is Scar, played by Patrick R Brown, who recaptures his intensity with the line: “Oh, Simba, you’re in trouble again!” The fight, however, is stylized as a raucous dance sequence ending rather quickly in the obligatory death of Scar.

A production like the Lion King can provide significant sensory overstimulation to persons with autism. This time around, however, the Hennepin Theatre Trust will provide a special sensory-friendly performance of The Lion King for children as well as those with sensory, social and learning disabilities. In this special July 30 performance, the effervescent musical will be toned-down by eliminating jarring sounds and strobe effects as well as having trained persons on hand to deal with families with special needs.

Bev Wolfe