One of my all-time favourite Disney films and as previously said, my absolutely favourite theatre show, The Lion King has finally, after 23 years since its debut in the West End – which includes a 2-year delay due to the pandemic – started its third but biggest tour of the UK. It surprises me that it has taken this long to go on tour again, being such a popular and highly anticipated production that has delighted more than 100 million people worldwide and grossed over $8 billion.
Having first watched the show in London’s Lyceum Theatre many years ago and not long after it first set up its indefinite UK home there, watching it again as an adult is undoubtedly no less exciting. And it is undoubtedly no less brilliant. It has just started an extended stay of more than 3 months at Manchester’s Palace Theatre – a fitting temporary home for a show called The Lion King.
As many other people who have previously had the pleasure of watching the show will tell you, sitting in an aisle stall seat is a must if you book in advance enough. The reason for that is evident from the surprise opening scene which sets the precedent for the following two and a half hours – an awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping spectacle that stuns all the way through. Even the youngest of children are likely to be keep quiet as they see the Disney magic they love come to life on stage.
With The Lion King musical, Disney also set itself a standard that even they have not quite duplicated. Shows such as Beauty and the Beast, Frozen and others have been well-received and they certainly do their best to reimagine them for a theatrical setting but The Lion King is indisputably one of the few stage adaptations that equals its film counterpart in excellence. A feat to pull off that probably seemed like an impossible task when the idea was first born, Disney’s creative team behind The Lion King musical have to be applauded as some of the best in the business when it came to translating some of the scenes for the stage.
The costumes alone are innovative and when first debuted, probably the first of their kind that had surely ever been seen or done. Using intricate puppetry and masks, beautiful, traditional, African-inspired clothing and clever mechanics to create costumes that complemented the actors’ movements as they embodied the various animal characters, these techniques and ideas have been used countless times since then. From Sven the reindeer in Frozen to Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and from the flying monkeys in Wicked to the dogs in 101 Dalmatians, the influence from The Lion King has swept across the theatrical plains as ways to really as realistically as possible yet still gracefully portray talking, four-legged or flying animals.
The iconic soundtrack that accompanied the film is also just as hair raising (Circle of Life), exuberant (I Just Can’t Wait to Be King), assertive (Be Prepared), hilarious (Hakuna Matata), and emotional (Can You Feel the Love Tonight?) hearing it performed live when coupled with the actors and their costumes on stage. But of course, new songs and scenes are added to the musical, which are either more ingenious creations by Elton John and Tim Rice, written by legendary Disney composer Hans Zimmer or others such as record producer Jay Rifkin and South African musician Lebo M, the latter three who worked on the heavily African-influenced concept album Rhythm of the Pridelands.
Although new songs for musicals can sometimes be hit and miss with audiences – whether it’s simply because they have not enjoyed the same longevity to be considered classic Disney songs, or because they lack the catchiness and essence of the original film and other songs – many added in The Lion King blend seamlessly with the rest of the show. Highlights include the enchanting They Live in You/He Lives in You performed predominantly by Rafiki, the haunting Shadowland which touches on themes of being exiled and surviving without a home, The Lioness Hunt that looks like one of the most dangerously gorgeous yet complicated choreographed dances due to the costumes, and The Madness of King Scar, which gives everyone’s favourite non-human Disney villain more stage time and spotlight prior to his infamous defeat.
The Lion King musical is a universal favourite among anyone – whether you’re a Disney fan, an animal lover or a theatre aficionado or not. Its compelling Shakespeare-esque story (despite the naturally inaccurate details depicting lion life), the wondrous aforementioned costumes and puppets as well as immense staging that make you realise why it probably rarely tours, its previously mentioned repertoire of songs and magical score, and of course the talented cast that take to the stage – all make it very clear why it is not only so popular among audiences, but so critically-acclaimed and award-winning.
The great thing about The Lion King musical is that it is one of very few that features a nearly all-Black cast, allowing those with African heritage to authentically and beautifully portray characters based in Africa (even if they are animals). And many have already performed in the musical in various productions across the globe. The few main and supporting characters not played by Black actors are Scar, Zazu, Ed the hyena and Timon and Pumbaa, which is similar to the casting of the animated film version. However, while Richard Hurst is certainly menacing as the manipulative and power mad Scar – who was famously voiced by Jeremy Irons – it is of course those who play the majestic Mufasa (Jean-Luc Guizonne), the confident and strong-headed Simba (Stephenson Ardern-Sodjet), the independent and feisty Nala (Nokwanda Khuzwayo) and wise Rafiki (Thandazile Soni), who shine and grace the stage the best.
In a happy addition, there are also FIVE ESEA (East and Southeast Asian) actors in among the diverse cast – Tau-en Chien (dance captain), Maria Yim, Joaquin Pedro Valdes, Elisa Chou and Bethany Chan (all ensemble). This shows Disney are committed to their mission to diversify their talent pool across their franchises. Hopefully this will lead to further and bigger parts for them, be they other Disney musicals (still waiting on that Mulan adaptation!) or not.
So if there’s one show that is an absolute must-see while you can and it’s on the road if a trip to London is too expensive, The Lion King is most definitely it. Providing a royally roaring good time that will leave everyone leaving as elated as Simba on Pride Rock when he reclaims his throne, The Lion King musical has been the worth the wait.