In preparation for The Lion King making its return to the Palace Theatre, Manchester, the cast hosted an exclusive launch event for the press. This follows the launch event back in January 2020, when the musical was supposed to be visiting the theatre later that year (you remember what happened next).
Located at the bar near the Circle seats, guests were immediately introduced to the blaring sounds of The Lion King OBC recording (specifically the ‘He Lives in You’ reprise). With around twenty seats and a small stage, we knew we were in for a treat.
Suddenly, the music lowered and Thandi Soni sang ‘Circle of Life’, which was incredibly powerful and honestly made me tear up. Thandi has been singing it for twenty years in the show, yet her performance remains fresh.
She then took a seat with the current Director of the production and discussed her journey through The Lion King as Rafiki. She seemed proud of her journey and realised the importance that ‘Circle of Life’ has not only in pop culture, but how it has grown with her. In particular, she said that she is always happy to come back to The Lion King because she learns life lessons that she can apply to wider life, constantly finding answers and learning from the story. Thandi stated that ‘Circle of Life’ will be the biggest song she will ever sing, and she was in awe of its power to this day.
Following Thandi Soni’s entrance, we were greeted with a performance of ‘Shadowland’ by Nokwanda Khuzwayo’s. This song was made specifically for the stage musical. Khuzowayo voice was strong and determined, and her entire face and body stance changed as she sang the song. She was no longer Nokwanda; she was Nala.
Nokwanda has been Nala across the globe and told us she’s done it in many languages! This is her first English-speaking Nala role, which I thought was amazing. I can’t imagine learning a role in so many languages and delivering it across the globe!
Joining Nokwanda, Stephenson Arden-Sodje is this cast’s adult Simba. He seemed incredibly charismatic and humble, amazed at how quickly his life shifted from graduating with an English degree to applying to an open audition for Hamilton in the West End and getting the role. Overnight, the projection of his life changed – and nd honestly, thank God it did, because his voice is spectacular. I genuinely can’t believe that he didn’t have any formal training prior to Hamilton and only sang in a local choir.
Nokwanda and Stephenson sang an extract of ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’, the iconic number that won the 1995 Academy Award for Best Original Song. This is my favourite song from The Lion King, and they did it justice. Their voices blended so well, and the chemistry between them radiated. Stephenson had stated that his favourite moments of the show are with Nokwanda, and I can see why – they’re incredible together.
After these performances, it was time to see some of the puppetry in the show. With over 230 puppets, there were many to choose from, and we were graced with an introduction to Matthew Forbes, who plays Zazu. He humorously swept around the room pretending to gobble people’s food and drinks and demonstrated how the different trigger buttons work for the puppet’s movements. Despite formerly being the Associate Puppetry Director of War Horse, he said even he struggled at first. Zazu blinked whilst speaking and didn’t move his mouth, which sounds quite terrifying.
We then had a look at different puppets and props and learned how actors work with the masks and how difficult it can be.
Following this, the Director opened the floor up for questions from the audience. Through these questions, we learnt about people’s experiences of The Lion King as children and how much the songs meant to them. After a fairly emotional Q&A, we were able to get our photos taken with the cast.
I had a wonderful experience learning about The Lion King. Frankly, I think I need to book my ticket soon!
The Lion King plays at the Palace Theatre from 27th October to 19th February – which seems to be the last stop of its UK and Ireland tour. The musical was supposed to leave Manchester on Christmas Eve, but it has just been extended by almost two months, taking the residency to 4 months – 1/3 of a year! This beats fellow Disney musical, Beauty and the Beast‘s 2-month residency at the Palace – which it just completed.
For more Disney theatre content, read our review and opinion piece of Beauty and the Beast at the Palace Theatre and our reviews of Bedknobs and Broomsticks at the Palace and the Lowry.
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