Theater Review: THE LION KING (National Tour)

Post image for Theater Review: THE LION KING (National Tour)

by Tony Frankel on February 2, 2024

in Theater-International,Theater-Regional,Tours


Endearing heroes and villains. Shakespeare and ancient myth. Coherent storytelling. Anthropomorphic jungle animals. Gorgeous African chanting. Transfixing puppet pageantry on a pythonic, prodigious level. A celebration of theatrical ingenuity. Forty-nine cast members –six of whom are South African. Over 700 lighting instruments. Actresses with the grace of gazelles. Actors with pecs the size of boulders. There are reasons why Disney’s The Lion King — the tour of which opened last night at Segerstrom Hall — keeps packing them in.

And then there’s that opening: Giraffes appear as performers manipulate stilts on all fours. A life-size cheetah prowls as its puppeteer moves its limbs. A herd of gazelles glide across the stage as dancers twirl wooden replicas on their arms and heads. An elephant and a rhinoceros stroll up the theatre aisles. Birds soar over the heads of guests from long extended wires. All of this in front of a deep red/orange sky (Donald Holder, lights) and the rising sun (Richard Hudson, sets). Within the first fifteen minutes of this show, we are transported to a magical African savannah. In fact, it is the greatest opening in musical theater history, and the main reason we overlook the musical’s shortcomings.

Gerald Ramsey

Important themes of family devotion and the ecological balance in nature are forefront in Irene Mecchi and Roger Allers‘ book. It speaks, of course, about the “Circle of Life”, the idea that we don’t die but merely take an eternal place among all creatures. The story is a tragedy about a lion cub losing his father and having to make a decision about growing up and taking on his responsibilities as the king. Simba (an enchanting Mason Lawson) wants to become the king like his magisterial kind-hearted father Mufasa (a resonant Gerald Ramsey), who is later murdered by his uncle Scar (Peter Hargrave) and Scar’s henchman hyenas. When Scar, who wants to be king himself, blames the cub for the death of his dad, Simba runs away, only to be raised by his new buddies, meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and warthog Pumbaa (John E. Brady), who teach him to forget about the past. When the now-grown Simba (Darian Sanders) reunites with his betrothed, Nala (Khalifa White; Jaxyn Damasco is young Nala), the lioness can’t talk sense into him, even as they feel the love tonight. Simba meets the same crazy shaman baboon (Mukelisiwe Goba as Rafiki) who hoisted him in the air when he was born, coaxing Simba to return home by manifesting his father’s ghost in the sky.

It’s Hamlet meets Bambi meets Kimba the White Lion.

The cast

At 26 years old, The Lion King has been seen by more than 110 million people and played every continent but Antarctica (give it time — it may be grassland soon). The musical has placed in the top five grossing Broadway shows nearly every week of its run — over 1,300 weeks and counting. Currently, 90,000 people see the show every week (it’s been touring for 20 years). There have been 29 productions seen by 115 million people. The worldwide gross of The Lion King musical exceeds that of any film, Broadway show, or other entertainment title in box-office history. So it surprises that it has significantly less emotional weight than the 1994 film.

Mukelisiwe Goba

While the current tour, which fits the Segerstrom stage magnificently, is less lavish than earlier versions, it’s still the breathtaking designs that steal the show. It’s a triumph of presentation over the material. The thanks goes to director, costume designer, and mask co-designer (with Michael Curry), Julie Taymor, the first woman to win a Tony for Best Director of a Musical, who to this day remains actively involved in the show, launching new productions and maintaining the flagship Broadway production. It’s nigh impossible to recreate the Broadway staging (the demise of Mufasa doesn’t really kill like it should), but it’s astounding for a tour.

Nick LaMedica

Taymor’s extensive and brilliant wardrobe changes seem to require each ensemble member to wear a dozen different outfits. The unique costumes include beautiful colorful tunics and pantaloons which adorn villagers. Grass is represented by turf headdresses and wicker skirts and later with single blades on nude leotards. Whether it’s that simulated wildebeest stampede or a pack of sassy hyenas, Taymor’s whimsical direction and vibrant designs suspend belief. With the aid of Michael Ward‘s hair and makeup, Taymor blurs the lines between real and imagined, puppet and animal.

Peter Hargrave

The score features Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs from The Lion King animated film, along with three new songs by the pair — although the best new song, “Morning Report”, was cut years ago, along with some other nips and tweaks to reduce the running time. More striking than the songs (iconic for a generation, only a few hold up) are the augmentations and original numbers by Lebo M, Mark MancinaJay Rifkin, Taymor, and Hans Zimmer, who wrote the film score. As usual with a touring production, the orchestra, diligently handled by Karl Shymanovitz, can overpower the actors — you will lose some lyrics. At one point, I couldn’t tell if performers were singing in English, Sotho, Zulu, Tswana, Xhosa, or Swahili (where the phrase “Hakuna Matata” comes from). I suppose that even though you may not understand the words, you sense them.

Darian Sanders and Khalifa White

As with Phantom of the Opera, which closed this year on Broadway, brilliant staging overcomes all odds. With a fairly weak score, Lion King may not be the king of musicals, but given the fluid ensemble dancers executing Garth Fagan‘s choreography, the dramatic heft of the performances, and the stunning visuals, it is the king of experiences.

The cast

photos by Matthew Murphy

The Lion King
national tour reviewed at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa on Feb 1, 2024
ends at SCFTA February 25, 2024; for tickets call 714.556.2787 or visit SCFTA
tour continues; for dates and cities, visit Lion King

The cast

Leave a Comment