Disney has long been known for creating a magical experience in just about everything they do, so it’s probably not too surprising that its touring production of the smash Broadway hit The Lion King, now playing the Kennedy Center, is, in the words of my 8-year-old daughter Cassidy, “breathtakingly awesome.”
From the musical’s opening moments, a sense of wonder and excitement build as dozens of African wildlife are brought to life with large-scale puppets operated by actors using poles, wheels and masks, creating something that has to be seen to be believed. An elephant comes down the aisle, a bird flies overhead, a giraffe meanders to the state, and all corners of the Kennedy Center transform into a musical jungle. I found it hard to recall a musical with a more jaw-dropping opening number.
Director Julie Taymor excels at creating something truly special for Broadway and it carries over well for the touring show (now in its second stop at the Kennedy Center). Taymor consistently toys with storytelling perspective in simple ways that open one’s eyes and mind to bigger worlds, both real and theatrical.
The story is one that no doubt every patron in the theater is familiar with. The lion cub Simba is born to Mufasa, the King of the Jungle, and in Hamlet-like fashion, the boy’s Uncle Scar kills Mufasa and makes the cub run away, thinking he was responsible.
The story continues as Scar and his hyena army destroy the ecosystem of the Pridelands and, looking for hope, the young lioness Nala (an adorable Nia Holloway) seeks out a now-adult Simba (the muscular Jelani Remy) for help. Together with Rafiki (the crowd-pleaser Tshidi Manye), they restore the Circle of Life and the kingdom is saved.
Act I rides a lot on the young actor playing Simba, and Jordan A. Hall is magnificent, bringing all the needed emotion to the part. Whether it’s the playfulness of the song “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” or the fright of being in the Elephant’s Graveyard and watching his father die, Hall captures all that writers Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi ever hoped.
Patrick R. Brown is winningly scrupulous as the villainous Scar, eliciting fear but never going too over the top to scare the little ones in the audience. His delivery is sharp and he makes the most of “Be Prepared,” a song even more powerful live than in the film.
The most fun part of seeing it live, as it was in the movie, is the singing of “Hakuna Matata” and Ben Lipitz and Nick Cordileone are delightful as Pumbaa, the lovable yet gassy warthog, and Timon, the wisecracking meerkat, respectively. There were belly laughs coming from young and old alike throughout the audience (including this reviewer) thanks to their asides and free spirited walk through their parts.
THE LION KING
Closes August 17, 2014
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
2 hours, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $195
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Andrew Gorell as Scar’s sidekick Zazu expertly squawks and sputters like a classic Vaudevillian ham and keeps us in stitches. While L. Steven Taylor is powerful as Mufassa, proving to be a worthy King of the pride.
Of course, costumes, puppetry and scenery add so much to The Lion King, and take on a significant role, almost as important as the characters themselves. The bright and elaborate costumes portray Taymor’s vision of the African jungle in all its glory while Michael Curry’s design for the puppets and masks along with Taymor, truly represent a cartoon come to life. Garth Fagan’s explosive, African-based choreography enlivens the whole package. It’s like nothing I have ever seen before on stage.
Song after song are memorable, thanks to the Elton John/Tim Rice Tony-nominated score, and while most are already familiar from the gads of DVD viewings you probably watched with your little ones, new tunes written especially for the stage production are strong and welcomed. “Endless Night,” for one, is beautifully done by Remy.
The enormity of the production, including the large cast and the Pride Rock set, does seem a tight fit for the Kennedy Stage at certain points, and perhaps a smaller company might be better for the touring show, but Disney’s motto of Go Big or Go Home keeps everything an eye-opening event.
Cassidy explains the show as “like watching the movie, which was great, but now it’s right in front of you and is fantastic. I felt like I was in the jungle with them.”
The Lion King is one of those must-see shows and will appeal to all members of the family. It starts and ends with a roar and everything in between is worthy of a King.
Disney’s The Lion King . Music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice . book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi . Additional music and lyrics by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer. Directed by Julie Taymor. Choreography, Garth Fagan . Set design:,Richard Hudson . Costume design: Julie Taymor . Lighting design: Donald Holder . Sound design: Steve Canyon Kennedy . Dusic Director: Rick Snyder . National tour presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Keith Loria.
Tanya Pai . Washingtonian
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
April Forrer . MDTheatreGuide
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Anne Vandercook . DCMetroTheaterArts
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld