Apparently I am the only person in the Pridelands to have never seen The Lion King movie much to the consternation of film colleagues and friends alike. Therefore as an act of contrition it was necessary to obtain a front row seat to the theatrical stage adaptation. What unfolded was a true spectacle with inventive costuming, puppetry, and head masks the star attraction. Combined with many inspired performances and an African infused soundscape this was, in many ways, a magical piece of musical theatre.
It all gets off to a spectacular start with Circle of Life introducing us to the animals of the savannah. And what a gloriously creative depiction it was as the performers came down the aisles and onto the stage. An elephant paused right next to me as its operators lifted it slightly to navigate the stairs. The cheetah was a supreme combination of performer and fully functional puppet and the giraffes were equally impressive. It was all a riot of colour and movement with the well-known song signifying the birth of lion cub Simba.
We are then introduced to his father Mufasa (Scott Maurice) who is King of the Pridelands, and Simba’s uncle Scar (Josh Quong Tart) who is less than impressed about being bumped down another rung on the line of succession. Scar plots the overthrow of Mufasa to become king while a young Simba is banished after thinking himself responsible for his father’s eventual death/murder during a wildebeest stampede. It doesn’t take much to work out what the trajectory of the story is as a fully grown Simba (Nick Afoa) returns to claim his rightful place on the throne or, in this case, Pride Rock. Along the way we meet many memorable characters, especially the comedic foils Zazu (Cameron Goodall), the meerkat Timon (Jamie McGregor) and malodorous warthog Pumbaa (Benn Welford); but also the wonderfully spiritual and cheeky baboon Rafiki played superbly on the night by understudy Tarisai Vushe.
The character introductions and setup is handled well but here’s the thing – in the early going I just wasn’t feeling it. The visuals were impressive and it was interesting that the set design was quite sparse with the use of a lot of scrims and lighting effects to allow the costumes and puppets to shine. But I felt at arm’s length from the story, more admiring these superb components and stagecraft rather than having any emotional connection.
Then we get to the Elephant Graveyard (which was a fantastic piece of set design) and the hyenas played by Ruvarashe Ngwenya, Joseph Naim and Andre Jewson who threaten young Simba and his female friend Nala*. Not only were the hyena puppets well realised but the performances added a real shot of adrenaline to proceedings. Their featured number Chow Down upped the energy levels and from there on I was hooked. It presaged the beginning of one of the best sequences in the show as it is quickly followed by They Live In You where Mufasa bonds with freshly rescued Simba, and Be Prepared as Scar enlists the hyenas to reveal his ultimate scheme for royal ascension.
The first act ends with the crowd pleasing Hakuna Matata and it’s a really interesting tonal shift from the darker Machiavellian plotting to the slapstick of Timon and Pumbaa. The second act begins with the joyous One by One from the whole ensemble where the African music and singing is utterly infectious. The Madness of King Scar includes a hilarious bitch slap of a certain song (that I personally can’t stand) from Frozen that was perfectly executed and ensured the biggest laugh of the night. By now adult Simba and Nala (Josslynn Hlenti) have been introduced and they have perhaps the strongest brace of songs with Shadowland (Hlenti) and Endless Night (Afoa) vocal highlights. I was a little disappointed in Can You Feel The Love Tonight and it feels awkwardly placed with the childhood friends not long reunited and now we’re immediately into full on romantic overtones. However, Vushe’s singing was superb as exemplified in the reprise of He Lives in You.
The action sequence of the climax was a little muddled and the wildebeest stampede of the first act also felt more functional than inspired with the representation of the gorge quite clunky. Overall though the singing was superb and the orchestra was in cracking form. Curiously, percussionists were stationed in the boxes on both sides of the theatre which gave the soundscape an unusual feel. The puppet work of particularly Goodall and McGregor was exemplary as was the humour they provided both verbally and physically. Josh Quong Tart was a marvellously conniving and snide Scar while Maurice gave Mufasa quiet dignity and strength. Afoa was a strong physical presence as the adult Simba while Hlenti was excellent as the feisty Nala. The standout though was Vushe’s Rafiki whose soaring voice and cheeky performance added so much character to the show.
There is no doubt this is a visually inventive and superbly staged show with plenty of family friendly humour to leaven the darker moments of the story. The mood and atmosphere created by the outstanding costumes and puppetry as well as the lighting and African musical flourishes are memorable. It took me a little while to connect on an emotional level with the production but once I did it was a real treat.
The Lion King is directed by Julie Taymor with Music and Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, and Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi and is on at the Regent Theatre until 1 November.
*The child actors in these two roles are rotated through a selection of four performers each so apologies for not knowing specifically who was on.