The Lion King
Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, from the screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton, music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice with additional music and lyrics by Julie Taymor, Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Hans Zimmer and Jay Rifkin
Disney Theatrical Productions
The Palace Theatre, Manchester
‘’This wasn’t in the cartoon!’’ protests a character in the stage adaptation of The Lion King. Which is the object of the exercise: to transform a two-dimensional entertainment into something wonderous.
Mufasa (Jean-Luc Guizonne), the Lion King, rules over the African Pridelands. He carefully raises his hot-headed son Simba to take on the responsibility of being sovereign but has not anticipated the ambition of his brother Scar (Richard Hurst). Scar engineers the death of Mufasa and sends Simba fleeing in shame. In self-imposed exile, Simba encounters layabouts Timon (Alan McHale) and Pumbaa (Carl Sanderson) who introduce him to a carefree lifestyle. But as Simba (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje) reaches maturity, he becomes restless and an unexpected reunion with his former best friend Nala (Nokwanda Khuzwayo) reminds him of his responsibilities.
For such a lavish show, it is odd the dominant feature of The Lion King is restraint. Director Julie Taymor (who also designed the costumes and—with Michael Curry—the masks and puppets, contributed additional lyrics and probably brewed the tea) does not settle for shallow spectacle but strives for a genuine sense of wonder; a stunned appreciation of what can be achieved in theatre.
This is apparent from the opening as the stage fills with animals, many, including a bloody elephant, walking down the aisles to join the cast onstage. Taymor strikes a balance between Disney’s trademark lovable talking animals and paying respect to the African wilds. The soaring opening vocals from Thandazile Soni’s mandrill Rafiki set the scene for the musical while Matthew Forbes’s comically over-anxious but oddly courageous hornbill Zazu brings some dry humour to offset the fart jokes.
The puppetry ranges from the intricate to the outlandish. Although the puppeteers are clearly visible to the audience, their vocal performance and manipulation of the puppets ensure the illusion of live animals, and their powerful personalities, are captured. Puppeteers balancing on stilts on arms and legs recreate delicate giraffes. A leopard carefully grooms itself before pursuing prey. The villainous Jackals are wonderfully grotesque creatures scuttling around the stage like something out of a horror movie. Timon and Pumbaa on the other hand are perfect recreations of the cartoon originals brought to life.
The combination of masked live actors and puppets working together create a vivid impression of the African heartlands. There is a heart-breaking contrast between the fertile plains of the first act and the barren wasteland and skeletal, limping creatures who endure Skar’s misrule in act two. This is very much nature red in tooth and claw—Nala discovers Simba’s hideout while trying to eat his friend Pumbaa.
The masks are a particular triumph. The facial features are exaggerated and immobile as in Greek theatre but flip upwards to allow the cast the chance to express themselves with their faces. There are also hybrid mask / puppets with the terrifying stampede of wildebeests created by masks the size of shields covering the actors.
Garth Fagan’s choreography is not a simple collection of dances but rather defines the characters as well as telling the story. The pride of lions and lionesses hunt in dramatic bounds and leaps their hands set as claws. The lush tropical grasslands are created by the cast balancing the grasses on their heads and swaying gently.
There is some heavyweight musical talent involved with The Lion King; most songs written by genuine rockstar Elton John and theatrical royalty Tim Rice. Yet the most uplifting moments on stage come from the African choral sounds created by Lebo M, particularly the soaring opening to act two. In the cartoon, the most memorable song is the cheerful ditty "Hakuna Matata"; onstage it is the haunting dignity of "Shadowland".
The cast in The Lion King tends to become part of the overall show rather than stand out as individuals. Richard Hurst, however, makes a strong impression as Scar, a self-aware villain with a drawling British accent and needing the support of a walking stick very much in the style of Richard III.
Naturally, The Lion King ends with a roar—from the audience.
Reviewer: David Cunningham