The Lion King are an experience of utter joy. The familiar opening call, in Zulu, breaks out into the theatre and from there we are transported into the pure magic of Julie Taymor’s stagecraft. Sophisticated puppetry, mask and costume design bring an entire pride land to life at the Capitol and it’s as exciting for those who saw it ten years ago at its Sydney premiere, I’d wager, as it was for those who were new to the show at its opening night last week.
There is a majesty to this production, a gravitas that surpasses the original Disney film’s emotional reach. Taymor, a high-concept director who can occasionally get too lost in her vision (Across the Universe, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark) hits that elusive sweet spot between symbolism and humanity; there is true heart in the graceful shapes and staging of this show, characters imbued with dignity and likability.
Simba (Nick Aofa as the adult lion) is the next king in line for the throne of Pride Rock when his father Mufasa (Rob Collins), a spiritually aware and just leader, is killed by sneering, scheming brother Scar (Josh Quong Tart). Simba, threatened by Scar, is chased out of house, and Scar assumes the crown
Everyone knows the rest – Simba’s coming of age tale with oddball guardians Timon (Jamie McGregor) and Pumbaa (Russell Dykstra), his reunion with childhood friend and bethrothed Nala (Ayanda Dladla as the outstanding cub, Josslyn Hlenti as an adult), and his internal struggle: live up to his potential, fulfill his birthright, and reclaim the pride lands, or run from his past forever?
We never fully leave the pride lands in this production; we see the starkness of its devastation as Scar lets it fall into a barren ruin. The grief of the animals is elegantly expressed with a stoic kind of sorrow; breathtakingly, the lioness pull streams of tears from their eyes – tears that stay on the face of Simba’s mother Sarabi (Zoe Mthiyane) until anger sees her tearing them away for clearer vision. It is this kind of imagery that creates a rewarding, almost operatic experience for adults.Children, of course, have Timon and Pumbaa. Dykstra, in a much better role than his part in this year’s maligned The Addams Family, in which he sang an appalling duet with the moon, is thoroughly redeemed in the form of a generous, funny and warm-heated character named Pumbaa; he is instantly lovable. McGregor is one of the best parts of the show, throwing his whole body into his portrayal of the wise-cracking, fast-talking meerkat, all jazz hands and talking out the side of his mouth and a ferocious loyalty to his friends of which he can’t quite seem to rid himself.
The best thing about The Lion King‘s life as a musical, though, is the character of Rafiki: the old mandrill monkey that acts as prognosticator, spirit guide, and voice of reason through is played in this Sydney season by vocal powerhouse Buyi Zama, who has played the role on Broadway, in South Africa – it’s her voice on the wonderful live South African cast recording – and in London and Taipei, among others. Her range is enough to stop anyone in their tracks and listen and watch mesmerised, and her bilingual melopoetics are staggeringly beautiful.
The rest of the performances are strong on the whole, because the ensemble itself is a force of nature, with choreography by Garth Fagan and music direction by Richard Montgomery; their arrangements, based on a multitude of African traditions and featuring six different languages, are stunning. McGregor, Dladla, and Mthiyane are the standouts amongst the principal and featured cast; Hlenti as Dladla’s adult counterpart was buried under the force of talent around her, rendering Nala’s second act number ‘Shadowland’ timid and strangely flat.
There are some pacing and script problems that are not quite forgivable; three or four static book scenes, clearly scheduled to accommodate moving set pieces and little else almost stop the show cold in their flatness. The staging and aerial work, too, is a little bit dated now, but it still retains appropriate grandeur, and there is something comfortably familiar about it – even while looking great, it feels safe. Shadow puppetry and masks are still used to great effect, enough that it still feels fresh.
Still, the show is full of theatre magic – the menagerie of birds, antelopes, a sleek Cheetah, elephants and all the rest are strong reminders of the power of theatre and design to create something truly evocative through shape, colour, and movement, and all the best songs from the film are there, supplemented with the far more nourishing and exciting songs and chants added for the stage.
Following Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as Sydney’s newest major musical outing, the uptick in quality in not unnoticed, is greatly appreciated, and is, let’s hope, a promise of yet more to come: these are the shows that keep people coming. Check this one out, bring a child, bring friends who look sad. There’s something to be said for the overwhelming sense of warmth this show leaves as the curtain falls; it’s here to lift the audience up, away from their life for a moment, and into something enchanting.