November 13th will mark the 20th Anniversary of “The Lion King” premiering on Broadway. The tour first appeared in Houston in 2002 and has visited two other times since then. Yesterday, the national touring company nicknamed the “gazelle company” arrived at The Hobby Center for a one month summer run. Has the show held up over the last two decades?
The answer, for the most part, is a resounding “yes” with a few minor squabbles.
For the few that have not seen either the play or the hit movie, “The Lion King” is the story of Simba, a young Lion cub whose father, Mufasa, is king of Pride Rock. Simba dreams of one day being king but must first get past his jealous uncle, Scar. When tragedy strikes and the young cub is forced into exile, he finds new friends, his true purpose and what it means to be a part of the great “circle of life.” The musical version of the show doesn’t re-invent the wheel when it comes to the story — it is very much the same as the film. What the musical does add is more layers to the story that are not readily apparent on the surface and a rich dose of African culture and music that accentuate the piece even more.
The showstopper is and will always be the opening number “Circle of Life.” As in the movie, the animals arrive to greet their king and get a first look at baby Simba. The entire Hobby Center is used during this scene, with the animals arriving down every aisle while birds fly high above the audience. One box seating area on each side of the stage is also used for the extensive drums and other percussion instruments used during the show. “Circle of Life” is breath-taking and worth the price of a ticket even if they stopped the show after this number.
The film’s other popular songs are also present, including “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” “Be Prepared,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and of course, “Hakuna Matata,” the act one finale. The roles of Young Simba and Young Nala are covered by two different actors each, and at my performance on opening night, Young Simba was a bit weak vocally while Young Nala was a better singer but not as good an actor. Beyond this, the cast was overall very good with the monkey Rafiki (Buyi Zama), Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) and Scar (Mark Campbell) being stand-outs. At our performance, the role of older Simba was played by understudy Aaron Nelson and he was outstanding, particularly during the stirring “Endless Night” and reprise of “He Lives in You.”
The costumes in this production are stellar, with incredible bursts of color in the African dress, elaborate masks for the lions and even some impressive effects achieved through the use of puppetry clever devices within the clothing and face plates. The staging is very creative as well, especially during the opening number, the stampede and a scene where the lionesses go hunting. Two scenes have been amended since the production first toured: the “Morning Report” number is gone completely and the aerial sequences from “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” are also absent. “Morning Report” is not a loss, but the pivotal love scene falls a bit flat without the flying ballet. It’s still lovely and sung well, but it feels like an 8 when a 10 was there before. There are other uses of “flying” rigs throughout the show (I counted three) so I am not sure why this particular effect was cut.
Julie Taymor’s direction of the show has been praised repeatedly but deserves another mention here. What she has accomplished with this show is stunning. The lion masks are all positioned above the actors’ faces instead of OVER them, allowing both the animal and the humanity to show. The puppeteers are also visible at all times, allowing the audience to enjoy both the expressions of the character and of the performer. The intricacies of the makeup and the costume design is also of a level rarely seen in any show. The show also features several musical numbers sung in various African languages, bringing a cultural richness to the production that adds many layers to the already strong story and imagery.
My ticket was one of the most expensive I’ve purchased for any show at the Hobby Center, but with a large orchestra and very large cast, this show delivers.
****1/2 out of *****
Disney Presents “The Lion King”
Music & Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice
Additional Music & Lyrics by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor & Hanz Zimmer
Book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi
Directed by Julie Taymor
Broadway Across America – The Hobby Center
Now through July 23rd
Photo: Buyi Zama as Rafiki in “The Lion King” at Broadway Across America at The Hobby Center