The king is back – “The Lion King,” that is. This stage favorite with its ground-breaking design by Julie Taymor returns to the Fabulous Fox theater, June 1-19, to the delight of families and fans alike.
Kids thrilled by the Disney movie will be wowed by this immersive theater experience, as elephants, rhinos and more march down the aisles, and the comic duo of Pumba and Timon spark laughs and Simba’s heroic journey. The kids and grown-ups alike will appreciate the inventive costume/puppets, creative designs that transformed stage productions in the 30 years since “The Lion King” debuted on Broadway.
The songs are tuneful, the dances and production design dazzling and the story, very loosely inspired by “Hamlet,” has enough drama and excitement to please all. No matter whether you have seen the movie, seen this stage production or neither, The Lion King is a crowd-pleasing winner, one audiences are glad to welcome back to the Fox.
The story is rather simple and familiar to all who have seen the animated 1994 Disney movie. The thrill in the theatrical production is in the staging – with massive puppets, colorful costumes that part puppet, Imposing moving sets and just a lot of wow factor, along with all the favorite songs sung well by the cast who portray the characters in powerful style as well.
Set on the African savanna, the show opens with baboon medicine woman Rafiki (Gugwana Diamini) singing “Nants’ Ingonyama” and the ensemble singing “Circle of Life” as an impressive parade of enormous puppet animals, who march down the aisles and from the wings to fill the stage with colorful pageantry. The animals are called by Rafiki to hail the birth of lion cub Simba, heir of the Lion King Mufasa (an impressive Gerald Ramsey) and his Queen Sarabi (Diamond Essence White). All celebrate the new lion cub prince, except the king’s brother Scar (an excellent Spencer Plachy) who makes no secret of his resentment of the new cub who bumps him down in the line of succession to the throne that Scar thinks should be his.
Simba (an energetic Jordan Pendleton on opening night, alternating with Jaylen Lyndon Hunter) grows into a lively young cub, full of mischief who “can’t wait to be king.” Simba, along with his friend Nala (Farrah Wilson), proves to be a challenge for the king’s bird major domo Zazu (operated and voiced by Jurgen Hooper). Then, with the help of some slippery hyenas named Shenzi (Martina Sykes), Banzai (Forest VanDyke) and Ed (Robbie Swift), Scar manages to arrange the king’s demise, and blames Simba, who runs away. The lion cub is taken in by warthog Pumba (John E. Brady) and meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone), who live by the slogan Hakuna Mata, “no worries.” But the grown young lion Simba (Darian Sanders) returns home to the Pridelands and, with the help of young lioness Nala (Kayla Cyphers), takes his rightful place in the pride.
Those amazingly creative costumes, most of which combine with puppetry, are the creations of Julie Taymor, whose design innovations have been woven into countless other productions. Taymor’s costume/puppets are a big reason this show has such a wow factor, bringing audiences back time and again.
Music is by Tim Rice and Elton John, along with additional material by Hans Zimmer, Jay Rifkin, Lebo M. Mark Mancina and Julie Taymor. The show is directed by Julie Taymor.
All the songs from the movie are there, with a few additions, and all are presented in dazzling productions numbers. Gerald Ramsey is particularly in fine voice as he sings Mufasa’s powerful showstopper “They Live in You” beneath a starry sky. The younger audience members will delight particularly in favorite “Haku Matata” sung with comic verve by Cordileone and Brady. The whole audience will love the ensemble piece “Circle of Life” that both opens and closes the show.
The story is dramatic bu comedy is a strong element, of course, with Timon and Pumba at the center of much of it, Their humor is supplemented by nice performances by the absurd villain hyenas, the puffed-up major domo bird and, at times, baboon medicine woman Rafiki, all carried off well. Spencer Plachy as the shows main villain, Scar, is a standout, as he is marvelous in both his scary glowering moments and wise-cracking humorous bits.
The whole production has lost none of its sparkle over the years, and it is a must-see for families who love the Disney movie, as this is the gold standard of Disney movie to stage musical shows.
“The Lion King” is on stage at the Fabulous Fox through June 19.
© Cate Marquis