By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Disney’s “The Lion King” is considered the world’s number one musical, according to the playbill at least. The animated 1993 version is one of the most beloved films even if the 2019 live-action film is less than subpar. Given the love surrounding the musical, it begs the question: does the stage performance live up to the hype and the title as number one musical?
Without a doubt, the answer is yes. And to further add on to that, it exceeds expectations.
Currently, the ever-touring stage production of “The Lion King” has made a pit stop in Milwaukee. Performances began in February at the Marcus Performing Arts Center, 929 N. Water St., and will continue through Sunday, Mar. 1.
“The Lion King” first premiered on Broadway in 1997. The success of the show led to several international productions including London’s West End and several tours both national and international. It has even been adapted into nine different languages including German, Korean, Spanish and more.
Like the beloved film, the story follows the lion Simba as he grows up. In case the story is unfamiliar, Simba’s father, Mufasa, is king of Pride Rock and Simba is set to inherit the lands and one day become king. The foil to this plan is his Uncle Scar and his hyena cronies who wish to eradicate Mufasa and Simba so that Scar can ascend the throne.
The musical contains the original film songs written by Elton John and Tim Rice along with additional songs written by the aforementioned as well as Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Hans Zimmer and more.
Songs such as “Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” are some of the musical’s most popular songs. And seeing them performed live makes them even better. However, new songs such as “He Lives in You” performed by Simba, Rafiki and the ensemble and “Shadowland” performed by Nala, Rafiki and ensemble are just as amazing.
“He Lives in You” in particular is real tear-jerker.
One of the best parts of the performance is the bond between the actors. Given that musical tours for months on end, its not surprise that the cast is close knit and that intimacy plays out well on stage.
There’s a moment, for example between Mufasa played by Gerald Ramsey and young Simba played by Charlie Kahler or Chance Smith (depending on the night) that tugs on the heartstrings. In it, Mufasa expresses his disappointment that Simba deliberately went into the elephant graveyard. The conversation becomes a learning moment for Simba as Mufasa explains that it’s ok to be scared and that he himself is only brave when necessary.
During the scene, Simba jumps into his father’s arms. The sense of familiarity and love between the two actors brought a beautiful perspective into the scene. If the audience didn’t know better, you’d think they were really father and son.
The subsequent death of Mufasa makes it that more heartbreaking.
In addition to the stellar performances by the entire cast, young Simba, Mufasa and Rafiki in particular, the show is a sight to behold.
Shadow puppets and actual puppets are used to create certain scenes like when Nala mistakenly chases Pumbaa through a field. The shadow puppets are visually stunning and are used to continue the story along. To illustrate the stampede of wildebeest for example, shadow puppets begin descending down the gorge as the ensemble enters the fray wearing wooly suits and holding wildebeest masks.
Other times, the actors themselves hold the puppets as is the case with the gazelles and Zazu, portrayed by Jurgen Hooper.
The entire set is influenced by African textiles and prints. A patterned curtain was used in lieu of the red stage curtain and helped further immerse the audience. Even Pride Rock was covered in a pattern.
In addition to the music, the costumes are perhaps the second most renowned aspect about the stage production. Julie Taymor was the show’s original director, costume designer and mask co-designer and she continues to supervise shows today.
It’s obvious that Taymor was largely inspired by the opening song and Mufasa’s speech on “The Circle of Life.” Every element is a living element. For example, members of the ensemble dress are dressed as grass several points throughout the show. As they weave around the stage, they make it seem like there’s an actual breeze on stage.
At one point, a dancer twirls across the stage in a spiral covered with ants meant to symbolize a line of ants making their way into their hole.
Every element of the costumes contains influence by African culture. From the colors of the face makeup to the beaded corsets worn by the lions and lionesses. Taymor’s work prove that an animated film can be brought to life through the ingenuity of costume design.
To answer the question once again, yes “The Lion King” is certainly worth the hype. Audience members will be captivated from start to finish. In other words, the stage production successfully triumphs over any other rendition of the musical. Not mention there’s even a shout out to Wisconsin cheese curds by the ever-devious hyenas.
For ticket information visit https://www.marcuscenter.org/show/disneys-lion-king-marcus-center.