Wednesday, April 3, 2024

"The Lion King" Broadway tour at the Orpheum Theatre

In the summer of 1997, the stage musical adaptation of the 1994 Disney animated film The Lion King premiered in Minneapolis at the Orpheum Theatre. That fall it moved to Broadway, winning six Tony Awards (including best musical), where it is still playing - currently at number three in the list of longest running Broadway shows. The tour has come back home again, and will play at the Orpheum Theatre for about a month - through April 28. Last night was my 5th time seeing it, and still, nearly 27 years after I first saw it, it's an absolute thrill. It's without a doubt the most successful Disney movie-to-stage musical adaptation on many levels - financially, creatively, musically. The creators of the stage musical took a two-dimensional children's cartoon movie and turned it into a wholly satisfying three-dimensional spectacle of music, dance, puppetry, and story. It's a big-budget spectacle that's also uniquely beautiful and moving storytelling. As Dana said in that one episode of Sports Night - look what we can do!*

In the Hamlet-esque plot, the young (lion) prince Simba is leading a happy and privileged life until his uncle kills the king, taking his place. Simba leaves his family and community in grief and despair, until a visit from his father's ghost convinces him to return, seek justice for his murdered father, and restore peace to the Pridelands.

photo by Matthew Murphy
Around this basic and familiar story is hung some truly thrilling production effects that only add to the storytelling. Every animal in the kingdom is represented by graceful puppets, designed by director Julie Taymor with Michael Curry, and manipulated by this incredibly talented cast. In the opening number, the animals are called to celebrate Simba's birth, and creatures of wing and hoof parade through the aisles of the theater, including a huge elephant with a person in each of four legs, joining the giraffes on stilts and other animals on stage. Birds fly overhead, cheetahs move with catlike grace, and hyenas scoot low to the ground. The set (designed by Richard Hudson) is relatively simple, allowing the animals to be the center of attention, yet it's also massive and beautiful as it effectively sets the scene from lush forest to barren graveyard. The bold colors and the lighting design create some stunning and stirring views that, along with the music, transport you to Africa. The effects of the stampede, the hunt, and the river are gorgeously done without relying on projections like newer shows might.

Mukelisiwe Goba as Rafiki (photo by Matthew Murphy)
The costumes (also designed by Julie Taymor) cannot be separated from the puppet design, as all are one in creating these human/animal characters. The puppets are so animated and lifelike, and you also have the double pleasure of watching the humans behind them act and emote as well. The scale of the puppetry ranges from the most delicate little shadow puppets, to massive beasts, with no words to describe the feeling of watching a life-size elephant saunter down the aisle of the theater.

In addition to being a feast for the eyes, The Lion King is also a feast for the ears. The score begins with Elton John and Tim Rice's fun poppy songs from the movie ("Circle of Life," "Can You Feel the Love Tonight") and adds authentic African sound (additional songs by Lebo M and others, with Tony-nominated orchestration by local composer Robert Elhai along with David Metzger). Multiple African languages are sung and spoken and African rhythms are beat on many drums in view of the audience, as the orchestra plays this full and lush score. 

Darian Sanders as Simba
(photo by Matthew Murphy)
27 years later and this new generation cast (many of whom probably weren't even born when the musical premiered) is as good as any. One of the largest casts I've ever seen in a musical, they gorgeously bring all of this ingenious creation to life in front of us with humor, grace, beauty, and power, perfectly blending the puppet with the person behind it, the animal and human elements of character. Highlights include Gerald Ramsey, exuding a quiet dignity as the King Mufasa; Peter Hargrave as a deliciously evil Scar; Mukelisiwe Goba as Rafiki, guiding us through the story with humor and heart; Nick Cordileone and John E. Brady providing the comic relief as Timon and Pumbaa, respectively; Darian Sanders and Khalifa White in the second half of the story as the adult Simba and Nala, hope for the future (and gorgeously singing my two favorite songs written for the stage adaptation - "Endless Night" and "Shadowland"); and all of the impressive youngsters with their boundless energy as the lion cubs.

If you've never seen The Lion King - it's definitely a must-see for music-theater fans, for the incredible artistry of the puppetry and other design elements, as well as the familiar and beloved movie score made richer with the added songs and orchestrations, and the inspiring story of community, responsibility, and respect for our ancestors and all of the earth's creatures. And if you have seen The Lion King before, you don't need me to tell you that the Pridelands are worth visiting anytime you can! Which is now through April 28 in downtown Minneapolis - click here for the official ticket site, and note the Student Rush option.

photo by Matthew Murphy