“The Lion King” is majestic theatre

Disney’s "The Lion King," presented by Theater League, is an ingenious and stunning theatrical experience. If you love imaginative theatre, you must see it during its three-week run in Kansas City.

Based on the 1994 Disney animated film, the musical’s story seems the same as the film’s to me, just with some additional songs, and perhaps a few scene variations to accommodate the move from screen to stage, and from drawings to human actors.

The mischievous lion cub (and future lion king) Simba believes he inadvertently caused the death of his father Mufasa and runs away, unaware that his father was actually murdered by his wicked uncle, Scar. In his self-imposed exile, Simba the cub is befriended by the screwball pair Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog (the latter played by Kansas City native Ben Jeffrey). The trio share frolicking adventures until Simba, having grown to adulthood, returns to Pride Rock to claim his rightful legacy and avenge his father’s death.

While the tale has great fun and humor–even, strangely enough, in the characterization of the depraved, villainous hyenas – and those great Elton John and Tim Rice songs (“The Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”)–the story also handles some pretty heavy subjects too, including domestic abuse, famine, drought, violence (albeit stylized), and patricide.

However, I don’t think the many children or youth in the audience were adversely affected by these sections: they pass fairly quickly, the end story is one of redemption, and isn’t EVERY fairy-tale we grew up with filled with evil and wrongdoing? That’s the point of fairy-tales after all – to scare children into behaving.

Plus, there are SUCH stunning visual treats happening all over the stage all the time! And not just onstage: musicians playing congas occupy second floor boxes next to the stage; several times throughout the show dancers/actors/ANIMALS(!) appear all over the theater, in the aisles and balconies, walking… right… there! It’s very cool, colorful, and the extravaganza easily takes some of the onus off of the more tragic components of the story line.

The spectacle is simply amazing to see. Birds flutter, elephants trundle, antelope leap, giraffes glide, entire jungles rise from the stage floor or descend from the sky, giant sunsets glow, massive rock and bone staircases appear soundlessly from the mist. One scenic highlight: herds of wildebeests seem to appear in the distance, move closer, and then dangerously closer still… all accomplished simply (but so cleverly) by making each succeeding set of wildebeest masks worn by human actors larger and more imposing than the previous ones, thus making their proximity to the action, and us, immediate and visceral. Just terrific.

And the costumes and props! There seems to be hundreds of them, with dozens of changes, entrances and exits that surely requires something akin to military precision to both plan and then execute nightly. The costumes are wonderful, all of them colorful, clever, and entirely evocative of the animal or the cultural touchstone they’re meant to embody. Many are a combination of costuming, masks and puppetry, and are so ingenious and involving that when I wanted to really look at “the actors” behind the character image, particularly Timon, Pumbaa and the hyenas, it was a real test of my mental focus to do so.

Though it is the spectacle that remains foremost in the memory, don’t get me wrong – the leads and the ensemble do a uniformly wonderful job in every way. And as is usually the case, it’s the outsize, kooky characters and the villains who are the ones who remain most prominent in the mind walking out of the theater. That is the definitely the case here, with particular salutes to the performances of Mark Campbell as Scar, Nick Cordileone as Timon, Ben Jeffrey as Pumbaa, Mukelisiwe Goba as Rafiki, Greg Jackson as Zazu, and as the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed… Martina Sykes, Keith Bennett, and Robbie Swift respectively.

It’s easy to see why The Lion King deserved to win its six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, for the creative team of director Julie Taymor, choreographer Garth Fagan, songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice, and librettists Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi.

It is a breathtaking experience. Go see it.


REVIEW:

Theater League
Disney’s The Lion King
Runs May 9-27, 2018 (Reviewed Thursday, May 10, 2018)
Music Hall
301 W. 13th Street, Kansas City, MO 64105
For tickets visit www.theaterleague.com.
For more information about the show visit http://www.lionking.com/


Cover photo: Buyi Zama as “Rafiki” in THE LION KING North American Tour. ©Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Insert photo: Gerald Ramsey as “Mufasa” in THE LION KING North American Tour. ©Disney. Photo by Matthew Murphy.