The Lion King: My fourth visit to the Pridelands was the best yet
There is an inexplicable magic in turning animations into stage productions. When our beloved two-dimensional heroes and feared villains appear in front of (and, indeed, next to and above) us in real life, we welcome them as old friends that many of us have known since childhood.
Although Disney has created successful theatre productions of many of its classics (including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Little Mermaid, and Frozen), there is one that is unlike any other. One that is not only an entertaining musical genius but, also, an evergreen visual phenomenon and a spectacular feast for the eyes.
It has been 24 years since Julie Taymor’s visionary and Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of The Lion King premiered on Broadway. It has graced stages all around the world, and it is still going strong in Broadway and the West End. But this time, it has finally come back to Manchester, for only the second time.
After so many years and performances, one might wonder if there is anything left to say about this musical. The opening night at Palace Theatre proved to me that there always is. After watching this production for the fourth time, I left the theatre the very same way as when I first saw it: completely and unapologetically in awe. I think that is enough cause for me to write these words and say: “long live the (Lion) King!”
Taymor’s adaptation follows the storyline of the 1994 animated film. Mufasa, the King of the Pridelands prepares his son, Simba, for the throne. However, the king is killed by his treacherous brother Scar, who then banishes Simba in order to become the new monarch himself. While the young cub grows up to become a mighty lion under the mentoring of his new friends (a strange duo of a warthog and a meerkat), the natural order is destroyed back in the Pridelands. It is up to Simba to take his rightful place as king to restore the circle of life.
While the stage production takes absolutely nothing away from its animated forefather, it adds to and complements it. For example, there are a few additional songs that emphasise character development, including ‘He Lives in You‘(from The Lion King 2), ‘Shadowland‘, ‘Endless Nights‘, ‘Chow Down’, and ‘One by One’.
Although these songs certainly add to the experience, what is truly mind-blowing about Taymor’s version is its breathtaking stage production. No wonder it has been performed to over 110 million guests in nine languages! The artistry and craftsmanship of Taymor and Michael Curry’s 232 (!) puppets (including shadow and rod puppets, as well as bunraku), masks, projections, interactive costumes, sound effects, and other technological and engineering triumphs took over 34,000 hours to create. Now that’s what I call dedication!
In addition to this, Richard Hudson’s scenic design uses every inch of the stage by applying forced perspective that creates the illusion of large spaces, thus conjuring the beauty of the vast African landscape: this effect is especially jaw-dropping at the wildebeest stampede. Last but not least, Michael Ward must be named for the characters’ hair and makeup, as he, working closely with Taymor and Hudson, brought synthesis and synergy to the immersive experience by the unique yet fitting usage of colours and styles that beautifully complement the breathtaking costumes, thus creating and completing holistic, visually hypnotising characters.
Of course, as The Lion King is a musical in which, by definition, the storyline is advanced through music, I must pay my respect to the creators and the performers of the wonderful songs and tracks. They were originally written by Tim Rice, Elton John, and Hans Zimmer, who received several awards for it, including the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, the Academy Award for Best Original Song (‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight‘, and the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
These pieces of music still affect us in the most sincere ways and make us go back to this collection of masterpieces again and again. In the stage production, we experience the deep emotional layers of these songs that only the live orchestra and the choir can reveal.
The audience’s enthusiasm and ecstatic energy at the beginning of the show cannot be described, it must be experienced. When the first lights of the rising sun appear during the musical’s opening number, ‘Circle of Life’, the auditorium immediately turns into a safari, and we find ourselves on the prairies of the Pridelands. Among others, a gigantic elephant, a black rhino, a cheetah, giraffes, birds, antelopes, and zebras surround us on their parade to welcome and pay their respect to the newborn Simba.
It was a very sweet realisation that I found myself just as excited to be so close to these ‘animals’ as when I saw them in real life at Masai Mara, when I lived in Kenya. It is because the interpretative dancers’ choreography reflect the mannerism of each species, thus making them hybrid—both zooid and anthropomorphic—actors. Taylor calls it “the double event”, in which “the puppeteers aren’t hidden. Instead, they are actors and dancers who incarnate the world populated by lions, hyenas, ostriches, giraffes”.
In Taylor’s The Lion King, not only is the fourth wall “broken”, but there are simply no walls at all: we are very much involved throughout the performance. Furthermore, the musical instruments and the singers are spread out and surround us, the actors walk across the auditorium smiling and waving at us, the drummers are playing in balcony boxes, and the jokes are aimed directly at us.
As I watched the show as a critic, my eyes wandered around the room to get a sense of its reception. Fortunately, the smiles, pointing fingers, dropped jaws, and tearful eyes on people of all ages and cultural backgrounds confirmed to me that I am by no means biased towards my favourite musical. One could figuratively cut the ecstatic energies in the room, which reminded me why I love live performances so much: parents who grew up on the animation cried together with their children who might have just watched The Lion King for the first time.
The show’s predominantly Black cast (a deliberate casting decision based on the problematic lack of diversity in the characterisation of people of colour in most musicals) rightfully received a roaring standing ovation: we stood up to join the animals of the Pridelands in their celebration of The Lion King.
Both the child and the adult actors deserve preys for their professionalism and, importantly, enthusiasm. After all, we must not forget that theatre actors have a difficult job in that they often perform the same show for several months (even years!), yet they must always bring their very best to perform it every day as if for the first time.
There are, of course, subtle but efficient ways to spice things up. Here, the Manchester-specific jokes (e.g. “We should send you back to Salford”; “looks like something from Bury Market”) and the modern popular cultural references (e.g. an excerpt of a song from Frozen) make the show feel very contemporary and prove that there are many ways to keep such a classic afresh. As I said: there is always something new and unexpected to this musical.
This wasn’t the first time I saw Taymor’s The Lion King, and it certainly won’t be the last, either… but it was possibly the best performance I will ever see. This adaption of The Lion King is simply as good as musical theatre gets.
The Lion King is at the Palace Theatre until March 11 2023. After this huge run, the UK tour visits Sunderland Empire from March 16 to May 6 and Birmingham Hippodrome from July 6 to September 16, with more venues to be announced.