Review: ‘The Lion King’ is an extraordinary, incomparable visual display

Disney’s The Lion King, billed as the world’s number one musical, is credited with having launched the new Broadway, the one that’s emerged over the past 20 years from a tourist- and family-friendly Times Square, cleaned up of grit, and some may argue, heart.

The touring show currently at Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo reflects all of this, for better and for worse.

Broadly appealing, The Lion King, with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice and book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, remains largely unchanged from the glorious spectacle that hit the scene 20 years ago. A visual delight, it offers everything local theatre goers crave in a touring show. Much as if the circus had come to town, The Lion King brings a high level of artistry; the wow factor of stunning set pieces, puppets, costumes and a grand orchestra; as well as the polish that comes from profound professionalism and decades of experience.

And quite literally, the first 10 minutes of the show looks and feels like a circus of the highest arts. Birds fly overhead, wild animals dance, leap, lumber, march, and glide at the hands of expressive and acrobatic actors who become one with the puppets they master to create a glorious living display. It is by far the best and most transcendent part of the show, expressing the larger themes, that everything is connected and exists in a delicate balance, on a felt-life level.

This is the great triumph of this truly magnificent multi-layered sensory experience that more than makes up for the familiar and somewhat pedestrian story, remarkably true to the original 1994 animated film. In it, the lion cub Simba faces his fears about losing his father and inheriting the throne by encountering truths about himself and the connectedness of all things and the circle of life while coming of age among the bold characters—both silly and sinister—throughout the African lands of his origins.

Though some of the songs and numbers are overly sentimental and at times lackluster, the performers are universally excellent. Mukelisiwe Goba is a vibrant, delightful Rafiki; Gerald Ramsey is a commanding Mufasa; Mark Campbell is a campy, melodramatic Scar; Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz are like a Vaudevillian comedy duo as Timon and Pumba; and Gerald Caesar is stunning as the transformed adult Simba.

Though what’s most compelling here are the many spectacular moving parts that create the entrancing stage pictures as well as the musicians whose sounds create the undeniable flow and sway to everything that moves, perhaps most notably conductor James Dodgson and percussionists Victor Pablo and Reuven Weizberg.

Rich and varied scenic design by Richard Hudson, magnificently colorful and culturally appropriate costumes by Director Julie Taylor, bold and beautiful lighting design by Donald Holder, stunning choreography that emerges exquisitely from both classical ballet and African dance traditions by Garth Fagan, and, of course, those astounding puppets by Julie Taylor and Michael Curry, work together to create the incomparable visual display that makes the nearly three-hour show so jaw-dropping and uniquely stimulating for adults and children alike, and no doubt for decades to come.

The Lion King
April 4-15