When one mentions The Lion King, a succession of impressive numbers may come up, if the crowd is right. Take, for instance, 7, as in the 7th longest running Broadway musical in history. Or 70, as in 70 global theatre awards won. Fifty-four million audience members. Two hundred puppets. Twenty five types of wildlife. One very dedicated cast and crew.
The Lion King is a powerhouse, without a doubt, but does the newest national powerhouse tour live up to its reputation as it stretches its legs inside Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre? Is the King still worth the worship? Absolutely.
The Lion King is the (literally) larger than life musical following the path of young lion Simba (Zavion J. Hill*), heir to the throne of Pride Rock, and Nala, his best friend (Sade Phillip-Demorcy *). Simba’s father, Mufasa, (Dionne Randolph) leads the kingdom with dignity and honor, but has caught the scorn of Scar, (J. Anthony Crane) Mufasa’s brother who believes that the crown should be his. Though under the watchful eye of Hornbill Zazu (Tony Freeman), tragedy strikes the Pride Rock, causing young Simba to flee and find shelter with forest friends Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumba (Ben Lipitz). His destiny, however, cannot be outrun, and when Nala (Syndee Winters) and narrator Rafiki (Buyi Zama) discover Simba, now grown (Jelani Remy ), they plead with him to return to his kingdom, and save the animals from the wrath of the Scar and his hyenas (Omari Tau, Monica L. Patton, Ben Roseberry).
Not a false note is struck among the wildly cast. From Zama’s breathtaking “Circle of Life,” and Winters’ mournful “Shadowland,” to Remy ’s “Endless Night,” each song is delivered with precision, and the heart to leave the audience with lumps in their throats. The young cubs provide the spunk, the out-casted animals provide the laughs, and the giant company, always moving as one, provides the awe.
To watch the locations of childhood Disney daydreams such as Pride Rock and the Elephant Graveyard unfurl within the already striking Hippodrome Theatre is simply arresting. The sets, intricate and complicated, rotate seamlessly within the theatre (Scenic Design, Richard Hudson). This beautiful execution instantly transports the audience to a dreamy and mesmerizing Africa (Light Design, Donald Holder)with scarcely a moment to catch their breaths. Through the audience parade elephants, gazelles, lionesses, zebras, antelopes, and from the rafters pours music so beautifully sung it begs for goose bumps.
Elton John and Tim Rice’s score includes all of the 1994 cartoon favorites, as well as new music written for the theatrical version, also written by Lebo M and Mark Manicina, including South African hymns. Julie Taymor not only directed, but also helped design the costumes along with Michael Curry (a task which, if you’re hungry for another number, took a whopping 17,000 hours for the original Broadway production). Fourteen years after its Broadway debut, this talent is still perfectly intact.
The cast and company achieve perfection, both in technicality: as operators of the magical kingdom animals, and in soul: as dancers (Choreography, Garth Fagan), singers, and actors. Their performances truly uplift the Hippodrome Theatre, making a task that can be nothing less than gargantuan, appear weightless. It may be called the magic of Disney, but it’s also the magic of dedication. Each performer, from the wildabeasts to the hyenas, deserves a nod (at the very, very least).
The spell of the Lion King doesn’t break, even as it attempts to do so, even as the audience floats into the streets following the show, exemplifying the kind of joy that theatre is capable of delivering. A story kids and adults can grab on to with both hands. A score that will stay on the brain for days on end. A performance of grace and beauty that will leave most theatre lovers spellbound. Turn of the computer and join the stampede at the Hippodrome Theatre; The Lion King is waiting.
*Young Nala also played by Kailah McFadden, Young Simba also played by Niles Fitch.
The Lion King
Music and Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice
Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Directed by Julie Taymore
Presented by the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center
Reviewed by Sarah Ameigh
Run Time: Two hours and forty five minutes including one fifteen minute intermission