From the opening scene of the Lion King musical, the bold singing in Zulu echoes through the theater. (You know the words-the beginning to the Lion King synonymous song, “Circle of Life”). A glowing ball of fire grows center stage. Elephants and antelope controlled by puppeteers stroll past us down the aisles to join the action. Two drum stations flank both sides of the stage and ryhthymically add punctuation. Then Mufasa and Sarabe climb the mountain to present their newborn son Simba to the kingdom. And BOOM! The theater goes dark! The hairs on my arms were standing up.
And it doesn’t let up from there. While I shouldn’t sound surprised because it IS Disney after all, I am a bit taken aback. It wasn’t what I excepted because it was so visually stimulating. With deft brushstrokes, the actors brought to life the pridelands in all its splendor and simply forgot I was sitting in the Peace Center in Greenville, SC and found myself transported to Africa. The creativity in bringing these animals to life was impressive. The human cheetah moved with catlike precision. In a clever move, several puppeteers could bring to life a wild herd of antelope. Meanwhile, giraffes glide effortlessly under the direction of actors on stilts. The lions and lionesses sport headdresses that aptly portray their power and prowess. And yet you can still see the actors underneath. It’s quite a juxtaposition.
The dramatic scene where the herd of wildebeests trap Simba in a stampede in the gorge was skillfully executed and Simba launched airborne (thanks to a guide wire) to grab a tree limb. Despite all the gravitas of the subject matter (death of a father and his offspring who is manipulated into running away), comic relief abounds in the familiar faces of Zazu, Pumbaa, and Timon. Of course, many of the classic gags from the movie are present (“and I got downhearted/every time that I…Pumbaa not in front of the kids/oh sorry” for example) But the musical also boasts original songs, many of which create more of an African feel than the Disney tunes.
Hands down, my favorite character was Rafiki. Portrayed by Buyi Zama, Rafiki was a powerhouse. When she sang “Nao Tse Tsa”grieving the death of Mufasa, anguish oozed from her pores. I felt I was almost inappropriately observing someone in what should be a private moment of grief. And then doing a 180, during the second act, Rafiki hilariously swings in by a vine to announce Simba’s return to Pride Rock. Twice. Yes, I actually snorted.
So my overall thumbs up rating would be 4 1/2 out of 5 (1/2 ) possible Mickey ears for this amazing musical. Run, don’t walk to the nearest production of the Lion King you can find. Although the tickets are pricey, you will find the show’s quality well justifies the expense.