Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
The Lion King
This is the touring production's fourth visit to Cleveland's Playhouse Square for and, in spite of the Cleveland Browns first preseason game at sold-out First Energy Stadium (capacity of over 67,000), The Lion King's opening night was also a sell-out in the 3,400 capacity Key Bank State Theatre, and for good reason. This appearance is part of the Huntington Featured Performance series.
The production is truly majestic in every aspect. Costumed dancers representing various animals of Africa descend on the stage from every direction for the opening "Circle of Life" number. In all, dozens of animals are represented in the show, including giraffes, an elephant (that lumbers down the aisle for the opening number), zebras, gazelles, monkeys, a meerkat, a warthog, water buffalo, wildebeests, lions, hornbill, mandrill, hyenas, rhinoceros, zebra, cheetah, crocodile, plus guinea fowl, buzzards, fireflies, mice, ants and various birds and fish.
The mandrill Rafiki (Buyi Zama) calls all of the animals to gather with "Nants' Ingonyama" to pay homage to the lion king Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) and his mate Sarabi's (Chante Carmel) new male cub Simba. Several indigenous African languages are spoken during the show, including Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, Setswana and Swahili. Not present at the young cub's presentation is Scar (Spencer Plachy), Mufasa's jealous younger brother. Mufasa confronts his sibling and the two nearly fight, but Scar slinks away to hatch a devious plan.
Years later, Scar tries to trick the young Simba (Richard A. Phillips Jr.) to travel to the forbidden elephant graveyard. Taking his friend Nala (Brilyn Johnston), they trick their chaperone Zazu the hornbill (Greg Jackson) and travel to the forbidden area only to be attacked by a pack of hyenas. Mufasa trails them and manages to save the pair of young lions. Mufasa then tutors his son on what it means to be a ruler.
Scar refuses to give up his quest for glory and soon hatches another scheme. This time, Mufasa is killed by a stampeding herd of wildebeest while saving Simba, and Scar convinces the young lion that he alone is responsible for his father's death and must be banished forever.
Thinking the jungle will take care of "the Simba problem," Scar assumes the title of Lion King. Simba is saved by two friends, the meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and the warthog Pumbaa (William John Austin), who teach him how to live off of grubs and other insects and to take an attitude of "Hakuna Matata." The youngster soon grows into an adult lion who, while he loves living in the peaceful paradise, yearns for something more.
The cast is absolutely superb, with some of the members having started in the Broadway production. Buyi Zama sets the tone with the opening call to the animals, providing wisdom and comedy at the same time throughout. Gerald Ramsey is great as Mufasa, showing anger when needed as well as tenderness. He is a true ruler. Spencer Plachy as Scar is perfectly cast as he goes through life with a perpetual low growl while feigning friendship and concern. Richard A. Phillips Jr. as the young Simba and Jared Dixon as the older version both are wondrous in their roles, bringing a feeling of innocence. The same goes for Brilyn Johnston as young Nala and Nia Holloway as the older lioness. Nia's solo of "Shadowland" is definitely a showstopper. Of course, the three amigos of comedy, Greg Jackson as the hornbill Zuzu, Nick Cordileone as the meerkat Timon, and William John Austin as the warthog Pumbaa, are an absolute delight in each of their roles and definitely appreciated by the young audience members.
The show is smartly directed by Julie Taymor (the first woman to win a Best Direction of a Musical Tony Award) with phenomenal animal puppetry by again Julie Taymor and Michael Curry, fantastic costuming also by Taymor, sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy, who manages to tame the wild State Theatre sound system, and wondrous scenic design by Richard Hudson. Clement Ishmael is music supervisor of the more than a dozen songs.
While this is a fantastic family show it should be noted that very young children thinking they are going to see something akin to the animated movie from which it came, may be overwhelmed by some of sensory rich scenes as well as the darker and more violent aspects of the story.
This is a show that will easily sell out throughout its next 22 performances, so get your tickets quickly. It is a totally immersive theater experience that will take your breath away. It has it all: grandeur, spectacle, comedy, tragedy, music, dancing, puppets, and great performances.
The Lion King, through September 1, 2019, at the Key Bank State Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland OH. Tickets may be purchased online at www.playhousesquare.org, by phone at 216-241-6000, or by stopping by the Playhouse Square ticket office located in the outer lobby of the Key Bank State Theatre.