The Lion King
Disney's The Lion King roared onto the stage of Calgary's Jubilee Auditorium last Thursday, barely giving its audience paws to appreciate the immensity of the production in question. The sheer size of the production ensures that it will be the mane event of Calgary's theatre season, and I'm not lion.
Okay ... now that I've got that out of my system ...
The Lion King has been running for close to twelve years on Broadway, and, based on this tour, it's easy to see why. The sheer energy of the opening number, starting with the now iconic burst of African chant and the sun slowly rising over the grasslands before Elton John and Tim Rice's "Circle of Life" blares through the auditorium is something that many musical production numbers could only hope to approximate. It is apparent almost immediately that this is the result of some of the best design and direction on Broadway. Among the more visually arresting elements of the opening number are a huge elephant parading its way down the stage right aisle, and the equally impressive giraffes (actors moving nimbly across the stage on stilts). It certainly ensures the audience's support right from the get-go. The visuals never cease to be anything but spectacular, and the cast handles the complex puppets with flair and panache. The show's original direction, by the incomparable Julie Taymor, is here fully and faithfully recreated by the tour's resident director, Paul Stancato. The choreography is also astounding. Particularly impressive are the moving mounds of grass that make up Timon and Pumbaa's jungle hang-out, as well as the "He Lives In You" act two reprise.
The story is familiar to anyone who has seen the original motion picture: a thinly veiled safari version of Hamlet with young Lion cub Simba as the forlorn prince, Mufasa as the doomed king, and Scar as the jealous and evil usurper of the throne. The movie version was arguably one of the best efforts from Disney films, following in the brilliant footsteps of the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, this time employing the considerable weight of big-time names Elton John, Hans Zimmer and Tim Rice. The stage version, thankfully, is not simply a direct stage to screen translation of the movie, as seems to be the case with some movie-inspired shows of recent vintage. There are several new scenes, some of which are used to advance the plot and flesh out the characters, while others are used to allow the audience a chance to revel in the beauty and violence of nature; the latter of these includes a very effective sequence of shadow puppetry showing a giraffe being stalked by a cheetah, which is then re-enacted in full display on stage, as well as the very graphic yet beautiful "Lioness Hunt" in which a gazelle is hunted, dismembered and evenly divided amongst the group.
Some of the new songs, too, are incredibly effective in character development. Particularly effective is the gorgeous "They Live In You/ He Lives In You" with music and lyrics by Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, and Lebo M. First heard in act one, it is a haunting melody that allows Mufasa a chance to teach young Simba about the importance of his ancestors, as well as teaching him that, while Mufasa may not be physically present with Simba forever, he will always be with him in spirit. When reprised in act two, it is an effective tie-in to Simba's connection with his now dead father, and an effective tool to explain Simba's decision to return home and fight Scar for what is rightfully his. Less effective, however, are the new songs written By Elton John and Tim Rice. "The Morning Report," written for the sole purpose, it seems to me, to give Zazu something else to do, falls flat, as does "Chow Down," in which the three hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed trap young Simba, Nala and Zazu and plan to eat them. Neither of the songs do much to help advance the plot. Also, the show suffered some very egregious microphone errors at the performance I attended, which I hope will be rectified during the run. I realize that miking difficulties present themselves in every new tour venue, but it would definitely help if one could understand any of the lyrics in the show, especially those of the newer songs (although some may snidely inquire as to whether or not Rice's lyrics ever matter, I am a fan and wanted to hear them).
Sadly, the score is precisely where The Lion King fails its audience. The stage version seems to me to be rather two separate scores, each vying for attention and validity. The Elton John/ Tim Rice contributions to the film suited the film's animated anthropomorphism. They were cute, comically menacing, or atmospherically romantic when required. The stage version, obviously, could never have existed without these world famous compositions included. However, a unified, well-integrated musical score requires time, effort and thought from a consistent writing team. Adding Lebo M, Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Tsidii Le Loka to the mix has created a hodgepodge of a score that never quite seems cohesive. As a life-long Elton John fan, I fear lightning may just strike me down for saying it, but essentially the score would have been improved greatly without John and Rice's contributions. The stage version strives for a much more serious, contemplative tone than their songs add. It is jarring to segue from the harmonies and rhythms of Africa to a pop-inflected "Chow Down," for example, and back again.
The performances are across the board excellent. As Mufasa, Dionne Randolph is a powerful yet sensitive father-figure. His voice fairly rattles the bones of the audience, too, and I found myself thinking that if ever someone were to do a "Star Trek: The Next Generation" musical, he'd make an excellent Worf (this is, indeed, intended as a compliment). Timothy Carter is an effective Scar, and Marja Harmon and Andre Jackson as the grown-up Nala and Simba are both vocally and physically perfect for their roles. The standout performance of the evening, however, belongs to Phindile Mkhize as the mischievous, oh-so-wise baboon Rafiki. Mkhize's vocal acrobatics are entrancing, and her body language effectively conveyS a wide range of emotions. Sadness, elation, confusion and patience emanate from her the moment she takes the stage in the powerful opener.
Overall, this is an entertaining evening of theatre, and is certainly among the more polished and well-rehearsed tours I have seen in recent years. Broadway Across Canada continues to raise the bar for tours!
The Lion King runs at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary, Alberta through August 30th. Tickets may be purchased through Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.ca).