Review: ‘The Lion King’ is an intricate, awesome, well-oiled machine

Walking to my seat at last night’s production of The Lion King, I heard an usher comment on how this show was “something different.”

Once I entered the theater I saw she meant literally: there are chairs missing from their former places among the rows, opening up aisles that were previously not existent. There are also two huge booths set up on either side of the stage with a variety of instruments, mainly percussion.

While the show’s set-up is a little bit out of the ordinary, once that curtain rises audiences are greeted by Rafiki (Mukelisiwe Goba), and nostalgia for the 1994 Disney film fills the theater.

Anyone who has seen the beloved classic knows how this story goes, but a refresher just in case.

The musical starts right after Simba, the lion cub prince of Queen Sarabi (Ashley Ware Jenkins) and King Mufasa (played by the regal Gerald Ramsey) is born and presented to the other animals. But one person is missing from the celebration, his uncle Scar (Mark Campbell, who is deliciously evil throughout the show). Naturally, Scar is upset that the birth of Simba means he will never be King and he is in a mood about it.

Flash forward a few years and Simba (played in last night’s performance by the delightful Salahedin Safi) has grown into a young cub searching for adventure, which he unfortunately finds. After tragedy strikes, he runs away and an unlikely duo, Timon (Tony Freeman) and Pumbaa (William John Austin), take him under their wing. As time passes, the adult Simba (Jared Dixon) realizes he has to find his correct place in the animal kingdom, which means going back home.

At this point in its run The Lion King is a well-oiled machine. There’s a reason it’s been seen by more than 90 million people worldwide and is one of Broadway’s longest-running shows in history. In fact, there are quite a few reasons.

There’s the show’s opener, “Circle of Life,” which is easily the show’s best number and kicks off the tone for the entire night. To put it simply, it’s a showstopper and the show knows it. After the last notes have been sung, the lights onstage go black and the audience erupted into applauses that were so loud, the “Circle of Life” could have also been the show’s closer.

With music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice — and book by Irene Mecchi and Roger Allers — many of the show’s numbers will leave you singing along and tapping your toes. Many are familiar from the film, like classics “Hakuna Matata” and "I Just Can't Wait to Be King.” There are also a few new tunes included. All of them will make staying seated difficulty though. Plus, the cast looks like they are having a blast, especially Goba.

From the first moment she’s onstage, she’s spectacular. Not only does she have one of the show’s hardest tasks — often speaking in chants written by Tsidii Le Loka — but she’s the show’s vocal standout, and hilarious.

My one quibble with the show though is I was left feeling a bit lackluster by many of the solo vocal performances, with the exception of Gobe, Safi, and both young and adult Nala, Danielle W. Jalade and Nia Holloway. The rest are fine, but few will leave you talking about them the next day.

What the show lacks at times amongst its vocal solos, it more than makes up for with Garth Fagan’s choreography, which won one of the show’s six Tony Awards.

At times, the dancing sequences are so complex and difficult you forget you’re watching a musical and feel like you are at a very contemporary dance recital. There are many times with multitudes of people on stage at once, then you add in Michael Curry and Julie Taymor’s puppet design, on top of the show’s elaborate costumes (also done by Taymor), and in the wrong hands you have a recipe made for disaster. With Fagan though, everything is as smooth as butter.

Speaking of the show’s costumes, Taymor’s creations blend so seamlessly, especially Scar and Mufasa’s, which feature mechanical headpieces that can be raised and lowered to create the illusion of them lunging. Everyone from the chorus to the main characters are also full of so much color, no detail feels out of place.

The puppet design created by Curry and Taymor — who directed the show too — will leave you in awe. With some characters, especially the hyenas and giraffes, it’s incredibly hard to figure out where the actor starts and the costume beings.

Even though the costumes, puppetry and choreography are complex — and spectacular — part of The Lion King’s beauty is its simplicity in its story. This isn’t a musical that is considered controversial or edgy or one with an ending that you’ll spend hours overanalyzing the details of. Like many Disney films, its familiar and comforting, like getting a giant hug from a friend you haven’t seen in a while. And in a day and age where it seems the news is filled with more turmoil day after day, it’s refreshing to see good triumph over evil. To see a happy ending. A little touch of Disney magic doesn’t hurt either.


The Lion King
Wharton Center
July 11-29