Music: Elton John
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Book: Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Additional Music and Lyrics: Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, Hans Zimmer
Director: Julie Taymor
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
When Disney’sThe Lion Kingopened at the Lyceum Theatre 15 years ago many were saying the age of the ‘mega musical’ was over. While it was true that the Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh led spectaculars of the 1980s may have passed, audiences were still craving lavish, well-crafted entertainment.
It’s a trend that Disney themselves had spotted with their cinematic work, returning to the heyday of the lavish film musical, only this time in cartoon form. The success ofBeauty and the Beastshowed that the cartoon world could transfer to stage but many sawThe Lion Kingas a challenge too far. How to create the African Savannah and its inhabitants on stage without turning it into a parody?
15 years on and the doubters have been proven wrong with the show firmly ensconced in the West End and in theatres across the world. In that opening week in London in 1999, this reviewer was impressed with the sheer theatricality of the production. As elephants wandered past inches away down the stalls aisle it was clear that this was a production that was going to tear up the rule book of how musicals should be staged. The show has lingered long in the memory but it had remained a one-off visit until the chance to celebrate the 15thanniversary gave the opportunity to revisit the show for the first time since that opening week.
Many long running shows begin to creak a bit at the edges after a few years of constant eight shows a week running but, despite its age,The Lion Kingremains as fresh and impressive as it did back in 1999. Much credit of that is down to the opening number itself –The Circle Of Liferemains one of the most vibrant and sheer theatrical openings of any stage musical. It’s not only a love affair of the Savannah but an ode to the love of theatre itself. The sheer exuberance, staging and immersive nature sets the scene perfectly.
Director Julie Taymor’s solution to bringing animals to the stage is to return to world theatre, using a variety of puppetry styles to evoke lions, antelope, buzzards, hyena and countless other creatures of the African plain. It’s an outwardly simple decision but being Disney this is taken to the extreme, filling every corner of the stage (and much of the auditorium) with visual treats. Taymor’s world is further enhanced by Richard Hudson’s evocative sets and Donald Holder’s sun-blushed lighting plot. The staging is spectacular but there’s no danger of coming out ‘humming the sets’, the design is used to drive the narrative forward, supporting rather than overwhelming plot for thisHamletmeetsBorn Freestory.
Elton John and Tim Rice’s music and lyrics may get headline billing, and fans of the film will be pleased to know hits such asCan You Feel the Love Tonighttransfer to stage, but the true musical highlights come from their collaborators.ShadowlandandEndless Night, written by Lebo M, Hans Zimmer, Jay Rifkin, Mark Macina and Taymor herself give the piece its real dramatic heart.
One of the successes ofThe Lion Kingis the ensemble working that ensures the live performances match the scenic splendour. There’s real ensemble working with precision work from all, whether it be playing one of the animals or an exotic piece of foliage. It creates a sense of community that supports the central story of self-discovery. That’s not to say of course that there are no individual performances of note.
Ava Brennan’s Nala is suitably strong voiced for this lioness hunter while Jonathan Andrew Hume mixes vulnerability and self-doubt with a regal air for the adult Simba. Being Disney there is also strong comic support with Keith Bookman’s flatulent Pumbaa, John Hasler’s jittery Timon and Howard Gossington’s obsequious Zazu raising plenty of laughs. Gossington also demonstrates that this is no fixed museum piece with experts fromLet It Gofrom Disney’s latest blockbusterFrozenwoven into his scenes.
The Lion King tries hard but isn’t quite perfect. Rafiki (a powerful Xhosa clicking Brown Lindiwe Mkhize) seems woefully underutilised and villain of the piece Scar (George Asprey) seems only thinly sketched, while the restoration of Simba to his rightful place in the pride in Act Two seems rushed.
In the end though it doesn’t matter. Here is a musical that is not ashamed to wear its sheer theatricality on its sleeve. It may use high tech but that high tech is concealed behind traditional staging techniques that have enthralled generations of theatre goers.
There may be lions on stage but it is the enthusiastic roar from the capacity audience as the lights fall that showsThe Lion Kingwill be roaming the savannah for many years to come.
Currently booking until 28 June 2015 | Photo Catherine Ashmore