Legendary show The Lion King is now in its 25th year and Wersha Bharadwa reveals why this new updated production will still have your hearts soaring in wonderment…
[Written by Wersha Bharadwa)
It’s no surprise that director Julie Taymor’s Broadway musical version of the original blockbuster Lion King film – ranked as Disney’s highest box office gross earning traditionally animated movie of all time since its release in 1994 – is a superlative affair.
Since it first opened on Broadway in 1997, the show has been adapted into 25 international productions in nine languages including French, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish and Japanese. Now in its 26th year, and the sixth longest running show in West-End history, The Lion King continues its legacy with tours across the UK and Ireland this autumn (the first time it’s been on tour here since 2013) and is hands down, the most spectacular, heart-warming show in the country.
Under the direction of Thomas Schumacher, the new tour is produced by Disney Theatrical Productions and features more stunning artistry, dazzling costumes, puppetry and spectacular masks than ever before
The show leaps alive with the lights dimming and Rafiki – the irrepressible, kooky yet wise Mandrill spirit guide played by Thandazile Soni and Nosipho Nkonqa in the UK tour – belting out the iconic, mesmerising and rousing first line of ‘Nants’ Ingonyama’ in Zulu from the Oscar-winning song, ‘Circle of Life’.
The song resonates throughout your whole body and from there, the theatre explodes with a riot of colours and sounds as the aisles are packed with an extraordinary carnival-like parade of animals (all played by actors with sensational puppetry skills) including life-sized elephant and giraffe along with zebra and gazelles singing as they make their way to a stage transformed into the pride lands and savannahs of the Serengeti.
You’ll be sat in your seats watching with child-like wonder, taking in the 360 degree delights the productions offers in its smart use of space such as puppet birds flying over the audience (controlled by actors of course) too.
The coming-of-age story follows the epic adventures of Simba, a young lion cub living with his parents, the benevolent King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi, in Pride Rock and his struggles win back his title and accept the responsibilities that come with being an heir to a kingdom. His evil and dastardly uncle Scar plans to usurp the throne from Mufasa and unjustly exiles young Simba from his homeland.
Aside from the five legendary film numbers by pop and theatre legends Elton John and Tim Rice – including the Oscar winning ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ – the
globally celebrated stage adaptation has three extra hit songs and the uniqueness and magic lies in the expanded score and totally new numbers such as ‘Shadowlands’ and ‘They Live In You’ with additional music, soaring choirs, harmonies, lyrics and African rhythms by Hollywood legend, Hans Zimmer, South African composer Lebo M, Jay Rifkin and Mark Mancino.
The all-star cast is made up of Jean Luc Guizonne who plays the noble Mufasa with strength;
Kyle Richardson who injects wholesome regalness into adult Simba and mimics the movements of a lion seamlessly as does Janique Charles who plays adult Nala. Carl Sanderson and Alan Mchale as the wise-cracking duo of Pumbaa and Timon are hilarious and affable, especially when performing vaudeville style routines including wearing drag to dance the Charleston, and Richard Hurst injects Scar with delicately nuanced dryness and sinister wit.
Matthew Forbes works incredibly hard as Zazu with excellent comic timing and skilful manouvering of the hornbill puppetry attached to him and Candida Mosoma, Michael Jermimiah and Alex Bloomer – who play the blood-thirst, hysterical hyenas, Shenzi, Banzai & Ed – offer wonderful manipulations of their puppets and sassy delivery of their famous lines.
The book has been adapted for stage by Roger Allers, who co-directed the animated feature and Irene Mecchi, who co-wrote the screenplay. The script remains mostly loyal to the original film with the inclusion of some brilliantly timed quips by Matthew Forbes playing the uptight hornbill, Zazu, who throws down a few self-aware references and gags about the city of the host theatre venue, Younger audiences will also love his quick-burst meta rendition of ‘Let it Go’ from Disney’s other superhit, Frozen.
All the performers are given their moments to shine brightly with pitch-perfect renditions such as ‘They Live in You’, pop-rock number ‘Chow Down’ and ‘Be Prepared’, with the full orchestra behind them along with dazzling visuals, lighting and special effects. Playing adult Nala, Janique Charles, offers a heartfelt, haunting, note-perfect and poignant rendition of ‘Shadowlands’ and after watching her performance, you’ll be humming the tune to yourselves for days after – guaranteed.
One of the most emotional moments is when Simba talks to Mufasa (whose head is pieced with dance-like movement like a jigsaw by actors in the ensemble). The stars twinkly so brightly you want to jump out of your seat and touch them – the scene has the entire audience utterly captivated and still in their seats.
Director Julie Taymor’s inventive vision for the show, alongside British designer Richard Hudson’s set design and Donald Holder’s mind-blowing lighting and effects creates a magnificent spectacle that at every turn and moment literally has the audience enveloped by the distinctive sounds and celebrations of African cultures.
Running at two hours and 30 minutes (with a short interval), visually, the numbers speak for themselves : 232 puppets featuring 25 animal species including cheetahs and birds and even ants (designed by Michael Curry) are used on stage through the show to bring the beloved Disney classic to live audiences.
Oversized, bedazzling sets and scenery design by Richard Hudson intelligently and effectively recreates the golden-hued African savannah and plains of the Serengeti – even the eerie elephant graveyard and is a feast for the senses. Costumes designed by Julie Taylor are sumptuous and striking and even the orchestra and conductor, Matt Abrams are are sight to behold.
Music has been key to the Lion King’s stage success, and the audience remains transfixed for the duration of the show by the scintillating sounds of the 17 person strong orchestra who accompany every scene from the quieter moments to big, thrilling dance-numbers such as ‘Chow Down’ and the uplifting and up-tempo ‘Hakuna Matata’.
It’s hard not to notice the incredible efforts of conductor Matt Abrams either; he’s visible the entire duration of the performance as drummers and percussionists who play over 40 instruments over the course of the show live and perched high in the theatre’s top-tier boxes to the left and right of the stage as they all perform the iconic songs associated with the film.
Their use of authentic African drums like Djun Djun and Djembe share top billing as they blend and layer all the sounds harmoniously together.
And yet, despite the newness and grandeur of the show, the tale still feels as intimate as it ever did delivering an emotional re-telling of a story which explores tragedy, love, the meaning of family, community and with the help of Pumba, Timon and Nala, the power of true friends who accept you when you feel like an outsider.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, other highlights include the fusion dance choreography and dramatic staging of the wildebeest stampede, the haunting ribbon tears of the grief-stricken lionesses at midpoint and Scar’s menacing call to arms to the skulking hyenas below him.
Beyond all the technical mastery and awesome special effects, you’ll watch the show and with the auditorium’s electrically charged atmosphere, be reminded of the story’s simple message of good conquering evil. Because, at heart, The Lion King is an immersive, powerful, magical and moving spectacle of a show that elicits moment after moment of pure emotion and the kind of joy and happiness that lifelong memories are made of.
In appreciation of a breath-taking and tear-jerking finale at Pride Rock – after the ensemble deliver a goosebumps-inducing reprise performance of ‘Circle of Life’ and crescendo – the theatre’s audience erupts with applause and gives the cast a well-deserved standing ovation – the perfect way to end this dreamy show.
How to Book
Disney’s The Lion King runs at The Birmingham Hippodrome for 10 weeks from Thursday 6 July until Saturday 16 September 2023 before the production heads to Dublin. The show’s recommended age guidance is for children aged 6 and up.
To book tickets for the show visit https://www.thelionking.co.uk or book directly at www.birminghamhippodrome.com or call 0844 338 5000.