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The Lion King
Music and Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice
Additional Music and Lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, Hans Zimmer
Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Directed by Julie Taymor
Choreographed by Garth Fagan
The Fox Theatre
April 20, 2017

Mukelisiwe Goba
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Lion King North American Tour

The Lion King has become a massive hit on stage since first opening on Broadway in 1998. An adaptation of the popular Disney film, the stage version caused something of a sensation with its innovating staging and use of puppetry. Believe it or not, I had never actually seen the stage show before. I had only seen the film, and that was a long time ago. Now on stage at the Fox, the latest national tour of this grand, stunningly staged musical is an impressive spectacle for all ages, whether you are familiar with the story or not.

The story, at least partially inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is one of parent-child bonds, difficult family ties, personal responsibility and more, with a cast of characters who are wild animals living in the African savanna. It centers around Simba, played as a child in the performance I saw by Jordan Williams and as an adult by Dashaun Young. Simba is the son and heir of the current king of the lions and various other animals, the wise and brave Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey). Mufasa’s scheming brother Scar (Mark Campbell) wants to be king instead, and orchestrates events so that  he can take over the kingdom.  The story then leads to young Simba’s growing up under the tutelage of fellow “outcast” animals, meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and warthog Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), and eventually being reunited with childhood friend Nala the lioness (Nia Holloway as an adult, Meilani Cisneros as a child), and encouraged to return to Pride Rock and reclaim his rightful place as king. Presiding over all the action is Rafiki (Mukelisiwe Goba), a wise, mystical mandrill who also encourages Simba on his quest to challenge Scar and his hyena cronies for leadership.

The staging is famously innovative with its use of puppetry and stylized costumes in the portrayal of its animal characters, and also for its stunning production numbers such as the spectacular “Circle of Life” opening number, which drew enthusiastic applause from the audience. The production values here are excellent, especially for a production that’s been touring for so long. Richard Hudson’s set design, Julie Taymor’s costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting design, and Taymor and Michael Curry’s mask and puppet design are all dazzlingly memorable. The choreography by Garth Fagan is energetic and well-executed by the strong ensemble here.

The lead performances are also strong, led by Goba (the understudy) as the wise, sometimes mischievous Rafiki, who in the stage production is essentially the star of the show, as far as I’m concerned. Goba brings a great deal of energy and personality to the role, spurring on Young’s earnest adult Simba. Young and the equally strong Holloway have good chemistry as Simba and Nala, and young Williams and Cisneros give fine performances as their younger counterparts as well. There are some fun comic performances from Codileone and Lipitz as Timon and Pumbaa, and also by Tony Freeman as Mufasa’s bird advisor Zazu. Ramsey carries a strong sense of authority and general goodness as Mufasa as well. Campbell is also memorable as the scheming Scar, with a leering tone and strong voice, and he’s ably supported by Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Keith Bennett, and Robbie Swift as the opportunistic hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed.  The dance ensemble is especially strong, as well, bringing a sense of fluidity and grace to the stage in the various dance numbers.

This is a good adaptation of the film, but with a few changes that actually make it work better on stage. It’s still The Lion King, though, and its memorable story and characters are on clear display here at the Fox. It’s an excellent show for audiences of all ages, and the audience I saw it with was definitely appreciative. It’s a story with humor, drama, and a strong message of redemption, responsibility, and hope. It’s well worth checking out.

Nia Holloway (Right) and Ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Lion King North America Tour

The North American Tour of Disney’s The Lion King runs at the Fox Theatre until May 7, 2017.

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