Theatre review: The Lion King musical
It is time
How does one begin to describe the greatness that is The Lion King? In 2014, British comedian Jack Whitehall had this to say about the Disney animated feature in his stand-up special when someone remarked that it's just a kids' film: "Two Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, it's been adapted into the most successful West End musical of all time... oh, but 'maybe it's a kid's film, because it doesn't deal with any mature themes,' said f*cking nobody ever. The Lion King is the greatest anthropomorphic assault upon a theme of mortality that western culture has ever produced. So no, it is not just a kids' film, it is Shakespeare with fur!"
No truer words have been spoken. Upon the film's release in 1994, it introduced both parents and children to the God-like prowess of James Earl Jones' Mufasa, while Jeremy Irons' seductive brand of evil can still induce some chills as Scar. Lucky us, then, that the Tony Award-winning The Lion King musical continues to be staged year after year (it's now in its 21st) at Broadway and the West End, as well as travelling productions around the globe. This time, Michael Cassel Group — in association with Disney Theatrical Productions — have brought the African savannah back to Singapore after seven years.
Bringing animated characters to life is no easy feat. The Lion King was the second Disney animated feature to break a leg on stage, followed by films such as Tarzan, The Little Mermaid and of course, Frozen. But none of them had quite the worldly allure and sense of escapism that The Lion King capitalised on. The full impact of Elton John and Tim Rice's music was felt the second the opening Zulu phrases from 'Circle of Life' were cried out, with the sun's crimson hues dominating the stage. A four metre-long elephant puppet — carried by four actors — walked down the aisle, as puppet birds circled the air while a pair of 5.5 metre-high giraffes plodded along in the distance. African percussion sounds and rhythms from each side of the stage matched the audience's own heartbeats, rising and falling to the unfolding drama with the use of instruments such as congas, djembe, gong, berimbau, taiko drum, rain stick, bongos and wood blocks.
Apart from English, the cast of 19 nationalities juggled six indigenous African languages: Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa (the click language), Sotho, Tswana and Congolese. Ntsepa Pitjeng returned to the role of Rafiki — while the baboon was depicted as a male in the film, director Julie Taymor cast a woman to introduce a more authoritative and influential female figure in the story.
Jonathan Andrew Hume (who also played Simba in the Singapore production in 2011) juggled the wantonness and emotional storm within the cub who came of age and sobered up. Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile was regal in his role as Mufasa, although the cadences he employed could have been more commanding. Antony Lawrence was downright delicious as Scar, playing the villain so flamboyantly that he came off as being quite fabulous. Finally, André Jewson was a faultless Zazu — if you shut your eyes, you'll be forgiven for thinking that Rowan Atkinson (who voiced the bird in the film) was in his place.
True, there's a lot to take in: Wildebeests, hyenas, gazelles, lionesses, zebras and antelopes shared the stage. In some scenes, the sheer spectacle of stars — such as when Simba, Pumbaa and Timon talked about the fiery balls of gas — could take your breath away in a compliment to the production's set design team. Other scenes were less memorable and proved tiresome to our already-overloaded senses, such as Scar's exchange with the adult Nala (he was the creepy uncle, after all). Moments between scenes of dialogue were cleverly filled with a look at the grasslands and a peek at the lionesses' hunt.
The audience saw characters as both animal and human at the same time, with actors mimicking the forms of the puppets they carry. Singapore viewers could appreciate the localised jokes by Zazu, who sneaked in clever lines about Jurong Bird Park and chewing gum (of course). Twitter and Angry Birds even made their way into the dialogue, despite the story coming out well before their time. Zazu even broke the fourth wall once, much to the audience's total glee.
The Lion King musical was no doubt a winner, and truth be told, was there even a need for a glowing review to convince you to purchase a ticket? It had the makings of a great night out at the theatre: A timeless story, an epic set, and a soundtrack with the ability to make a now 20- or 30-something adult regress to his or her childhood days, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.