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It begins with a solitary figure on the stage. Rafiki is opening the show with the signature cry from the Circle of Life. There’s a response from the audience. It’s a man costumed as an animal. This back and forth goes on for a moment, and all of a sudden the theatre is swarming with various depictions of wildlife up and down the aisles. Giraffes take the stage, elephants roam the floors, and the theater is transformed into a menagerie of wildlife unlike anything I’ve ever seen in live theater. This is the Lion King, and it’s spectacular.
When the Lion King was released as an animated feature back in 1994, I never dreamed that it would be possible to successfully translate the film to the stage. This was an epic Shakespearean tale (literally inspired by Hamlet) taking place in Africa featuring talking wildlife as its characters. How could this possibly be performed on stage as anything less than cheesy?
Director Julie Taymor came up with the brilliant idea of having the human element visible on stage. Using elaborate costuming and puppetry, the audience always sees the performer along with the character. This allows the actors to provide a genuine performance, and not simply hide behind a costume. Most of the lions are simply portrayed by masks sitting atop the actor’s heads that occasionally lower in front of their faces. Other characters such as Timon and Zazu are depicted through full-on puppetry, but with the performer front and center acting out the role in sync with the puppet.
This element of human and animal hybridization creates a unique experience in which the audience is simultaneously invested in the theatricality of the performances along with the technical artistry of the characters. The story is almost identical to that of the film, with a few added musical numbers, and some slight tweaks here and there. Everything you remember from the film is included to jaw-dropping effect. Even the wildebeest stampede is thrillingly depicted through a clever layering of the set, creating a depth of scene that makes the chase feel dangerously real.
It doesn’t matter how familiar you are with the original film. You will be drawn into this world and find yourself emotionally invested with these characters once again. There is a reason this story is so popular after 16 years. This is an epic battle between good and evil, with the treacherous Scar as one of the great villains of all time. Even having seen the film as much as I have, I still got chills as Scar declared “long live the king” to Mufasa before the pivotal moment of betrayal.
And even though I was familiar with all of these moments from the film, the play is not simple recreation. As mentioned above, there are new musical numbers and setpieces designed specifically for the stage. One of the best additions is Shadowland, a powerful new number performed by Nala as she ruminates on the disastrous state they find themselves after Scar has taken over as king. The song is taken from a musical cue in the original film, and elaborated into a beautiful number that perfectly depicts the emotion of the scene.
There is only one sequence in the entire production that I didn’t feel was necessary. The musical number Chow Down, performed by the hyenas in the elephant graveyard, felt a little bit silly and out of place. I loved the hyenas themselves, both in terms of performances and costuming, and I loved the set for the graveyard, with its geysers of smoke erupting all over the stage, but I could have done without the musical number. It’s not a bad song, but it’s not up to par with the other additions.
One element I wasn’t expecting was the use of dance through the story. There are many types of dance employed throughout the film, often beautiful, sometimes humorous, but always entertaining. During Timon’s rendition of Can You Feel the Love Tonight, there is even aerial dance. It’s a gorgeous sequence, with the performers gracefully manipulating themselves through the air, perfectly encapsulating the emotion of the scene.
Speaking of Timon, Tyler Murree does an amazing job in his depiction of the wisecracking character. He perfectly captures the essence of the character without ever descending into impersonation. Tony Freeman also accomplishes this feat in his depiction of Zazu. I was amazed at how quickly I forgot the animated versions of these characters and was able to completely accept these portrayals.
Currently, the Lion King is the eighth longest-running show on Broadway. It is currently in its 13th year, and has been performed for over 50 million people. Now is your chance to see this phenomenal production. The Lion King will be playing at the Orange County Performing Arts Center now through Sunday, June 13. I’d heard a lot of hype going in, and my expectations were astronomically high. Those expectations were met, and exceeded. And judging by the extreme reaction of the audience, I’d say everyone in the theater agreed with me. The Lion King is an exceptionally unique experience, and one that must be seen to be believed.
Tickets available online at OCPAC.org, or by phone at (714) 556-2787.