‘The Lion King’: The same old story, told in an exciting new way
MANILA, Philippines – You think you know how The Lion King will be onstage, especially if you are one of those '90s kids who grew up watching the film.
As you watch the show, you may even mildly appreciate how the so-called circle of life has led to this moment: the grown-up version of yourself dressed in grown-up duds, on your best grown-up behavior at the grown-up theater that is Solaire, watching a decidedly grown-up version of the movie you used to watch on VHS in your pajamas on Sunday mornings two decades ago. When the curtain lifts and the familar opening chant from “Circle of Life” pierces the theater’s anticipating silence, you’re pretty sure you know what’s going to happen next – you know all the words to the song, after all.
And then something unexpected happens: you find yourself tearing up just as the animal kingdom, in perfectly executed choreography, bend the knee for the lions atop Pride Rock.
“Why am I crying? Simba isn’t even trying to nudge his dead father back to life yet!” you’ll muse, wondering where the premature tears are coming from, and at that point you’ll realize that as much as you think you know this beloved Disney musical, seeing it unfold before you in the flesh is a different experience entirely.
The stage play takes the beloved 1994 Disney cartoon and turns it into a moving, musical work of art. And it’s not your run-of-the-mill Broadway theater experience either. Much of the play borrows from different theatrical traditions – shadow play, string puppets, even Noh drama – to tell a familiar story in a sumptuous, exciting way.
The stage play is for the most part faithful to its origins – even the asides and jokes are the same – but it is grander and more sophisticated, from character to costume, and of course, the music.
Take Scar for instance – on stage he is dandier and flamboyant, which also somehow makes the villain more sinister. Rafiki is a female now, and she’s even more outlandish. She also plays a more pivotal role in Simba’s self-actualization – as does Nala, who goes from mere romantic interest to a commanding character with her own story arc.
The music is also richer in the stage play. It builds on the original music by Elton John and Tim Rice, but has more material by Grammy-award winning composer Lebo M.
The music in the play pays proper tribute to African culture by including more parts sung in African languages. The addition of new songs serves to flesh out the characters and their relationships further so that every act delivers more of an emotional punch. There are the favorites of course: “Hakuna Matata,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and “Just Can’t Wait to be King”. And then there are new songs such as “Chow Down,” which gives the hyenas more stage time so that they’re more than just comic relief, and are proper villains in their own right. There is also “Shadowland,” which is the song an adult Nala performs with the lionesses when she resolves to leave Pride Rock after being harrassed by Scar.
Where at times the dialogue falls flat or feels scripted,the songs make up for it and deliver the emotional payoff, sustaining the show’s power all throughout. It is a credit to the cast – whose voices soar through the air and settle right into the viewers' hearts. The music also gives way to choreography that allows human actors to assume the role of animals convincingly. There is a swinging, heavy-footed quality to the way Mufasa and Simba move, even in the scenes where they’re fighting off hyenas.
How the actors worked their elaborate costumes effortlessly was a spectacle in itself – especially for the roles of Zazu and Timon whose characters were represented by puppets.
The costume design won Julie Taymor a Tony in 1998, and it’s no wonder. Beautiful, intricate, and functional, they play a huge role in creating the animal kingdom onstage. Mufasa’s and Scar’s headpieces move back and forth when they argue – mimicking the way lions lunge at each other in the wild. Actors on stilts walk across the stage as giraffes. A giant cheetah puppet piece is worn and commandeered by a dancer who works the costume like it is a part of her own body.
International touring cast
The show made its way to Manila via the Michael Cassel Group, Disney Theatrical Productions, and Concertus Manila. The International touring cast brings the story to life, joined by 6 Filipino actors who alternate in the roles of young Simba and young Nala.
Ntsepa Pitjeng is flawless as the wise old Rafiki, while Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile gives a formidable performance as Mufasa. Antony Lawrence commands every scene he’s in as Scar.
Calvyn Grandling is a charming, loveable Simba, and Noxolo Dlamini is a fierce and spirited Nala. André Jewson is hilarious as Zazu, and so are Jamie McGregor and Pierre Van Heerden, who play the immortal duo that is Timon and Pumbaa. Candida Mosoma plays Shenzi, Björn Blignaut plays Banzai, and Mark Tatham plays Ed, the three hyenas.
Julien Joshua M Dolor Jr, Gabriel P Tiongson, and Omar Sharief L Uddin alternate as young Simba, while Sheena Kirsten Bentoy, Uma Naomi Martin, and Felicity Kyle Napuli play young Nala.
The cast is undoubtedly talented, and the love they have for the story they’re telling is palpable throughout their performance. It’s just as well, too. Anything less and the characters would have gotten lost in the combined splendor of the costumes, the set, the music, and the choreography.
By the time the “Circle of Life” plays again at the show’s triumphant end, you may find yourself breathless, out of words, and ultimately, grateful that a beloved childhood classic reimagined for the stage can give even jaded grown-ups a sense of wonder.
The Lion King runs at the Theater at Solaire until May 6. – Rappler.com