THE LION KING

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until 16th SEP.

July 13, 2023

images © Deen van Meer.

Exit one king, enter another. Mere days after the curtain fell, in Stockholm, on the final public performance of Sir Elton John, Midlands audiences are greeted with a noble reminder of one of his most prolific and celebrated epochs.

The legendary musician’s Academy Award-winning tunes for The Lion King remain as indelible and beloved as ever, as does this stage adaptation born from the animated classic. It comfortably sits upon a veritable pride of plaudits; in addition to a bundle of Tony’s and Oliviers to sit alongside those Oscars, in 2014 King became the top-earning title in box-office history, inclusive of both stage and film.

For this – perhaps surprisingly only its second ever – UK tour, some temporary setbacks and delays (mostly courtesy of a certain pandemic) have done nothing to stifle the majesty and impact of a show that is by now a (if not the) textbook example of adapting a property to the stage.

It bears repeating. Many Disney classics have attempted to follow in King’s mighty paw prints in their transition from celluloid to stage, but none have managed to tread such a finessed and effective balance of satisfying those familiar with the original film whilst still forging a unique musical theatre experience of all of its own. The House of Mouse’s most recent offering, Frozen, for instance, offers up plenty of spectacle and production value, but foregoes much of Lion King’s confidence in clawing out its own identity.

“…remains one of the most distinctive and unmistakable musical experiences”

For certain, some of Julie Taymor and Richard Hudson‘s now-iconic scenic, costume and puppetry design are born of necessity, but it’s worth remembering that it didn’t have to be this stylised and heightened. It sings all the louder for it, and though there remains some mild inconsistency in regards to its anthropomorphic bent (characters such as Zazu, Timon and Pumbaa pitch fairly close to the original characters in aesthetic and design, whereas the lions and Rafiki are of an altogether more humanoid ilk), all these years on it remains one of the most distinctive and unmistakable musical experiences. Beautifully enriched and imbued at practically every turn with colour and texture reflective of African and Asian (the predominance of a tethered, layered rising sun, for instance) art and culture, this latest tour sacrifices little of the show’s innate majesty and visual bombast.

A roarin’ success: First placed into production by Disney in the early 90’s as something of a filler project whilst the Studio’s heavyhitters worked on what was projected to be their next big renaissance hit – 1995’s Pocahontas – 1994’s The Lion King ended up defying all expectations, becoming the second-highest grossing film of all time (after 1993’s Jurassic Park). It also held on to the coveted title of most successful animated film of all time up until 2003, when it was toppled by fellow Disney release, Finding Nemo

Taymor and Michael Curry’s fantastic puppetry remains one of the real stars of the show. True, when pitched against the likes of, say, Life of Pi’s tiger, some of the menagerie of Serenghetti creatures brought to life on stage may look a trifle rudimentary or slightly more dated by comparison, but they are no less affecting or moving. Be it enormous giraffes and elephants striding across the flats, or even down the aisles during the unbeatable ‘Circle of Life’ opener, a cackling gaggle of arched hyenas shuffling around anarchically, or even a tiny mouse puppeteered in spotlight – there is regular wonderment to be found in King’s animal ensemble.

“Taymor and Michael Curry’s fantastic puppetry remains one of the real stars of the show… there is regular wonderment to be found in King’s animal ensemble.”

And one of the most tireless and impressive ensembles in the business bring the critters and creatures of Lion King to life. Movement abounds throughout, and the fantastic company bring vigour and energy to a show that whips around between comedy, tragedy, the epic and the intimate. From stampeding wildebeest, the balletic grace of a lioness hunt, to the sheer unbridled joy of a choral Act II opener, this King’s pride of performers are truly worthy of the name.

A roarin’ success: First placed into production by Disney in the early 90’s as something of a filler project whilst the Studio’s heavyhitters worked on what was projected to be their next big renaissance hit – 1995’s Pocahontas – 1994’s The Lion King ended up defying all expectations, becoming the second-highest grossing film of all time (after 1993’s Jurassic Park). It also held on to the coveted title of most successful animated film of all time up until 2003, when it was toppled by fellow Disney release, Finding Nemo

In the performance reviewed, Nosipho Nkonqa was a powerful, winning presence as Rafiki. Having some of the best (but also biggest) numbers of the night, including the stirring ‘He Lives in You’, Nkonqa delivered them beautifully, with her notable experience and familiarity with the show helping to lend her sagely baboon a real venerable edge. Richard Hurst is a commanding, bitingly vicious Scar, lending the show’s villain a suitably theatrical yet imposing slant, whilst Jean-Luc Guizonne proves a suitably regal Mufasa. Matthew Forbes shines throughout as the droll, fussy Zazu, whilst Alan McHale and Carl Sanderson are equally animated and scene-stealing as Simba’s sidekick cohorts, Timon and Pumbaa.

Leaping and bounding impressively into the second act, Kyle Richardson and Janique Charles are quite wonderful as adult Simba and Nala. Charles keeps a fire burning just beneath the surface of her poised, dignified Nala, doing wonderful work with her ‘Shadowlands’ number in particular. Richardson’s youthful, charged, occasionally even stroppy take on Simba, meanwhile, lends the character real dimension and pathos, particularly when beautifully explored by Richardson’s impressive, soulful vocals.

The more cynical and pedantic could perhaps take time to pluck on some of the threads where the stage production of Lion King is, as mentioned, beginning to show the odd sign of its age. It’s still a little disjointed, partly by dint of it being effectively a story of two very different halves (and plonking an interval between them only makes this even more glaring). Whilst regularly emotive, it isn’t terribly deep, with only really Richardson’s Simba having much by way of nuance or development. Some of the film’s more unfettered and freewheeling flights of fancy, such as the technicolor postmodernism of ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’, feel a little caged and subdued here, too.

But it’s mostly splitting mane hairs.

Sure, there’s probably a fascinating (if expensive) exercise to be had in exploring a revitalised version of what is, after all, a twenty-five year old production. But in truth, whilst The Lion King may be getting a little long in the fang, it’s still a rich, vivid theatregoing experience that is no less powerful or evocative because of it.

And, judging by the audience reaction alone, not to mention the undeniable swell of goosebump-prickling awe that comes in regular waves throughout, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find this same wonderful, celebrated and characterful production delivering the same thrills and unmistakable Disney magic for many more moons to come.

For it’s the circle of life.

And it does, indeed, move us all.

As rich and distinctive as ever, it remains for the most part the crowning glory of Disney’s stage adaptations. With a roster of set pieces and numbers to die for, a superb cast roar new life into a slightly ageing, yet no less majestic, favourite.

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