Ever since The Lion King made it’s debut roar on Broadway in the New Amsterdam Theatre, I have heard mostly great things about the show (especially about Julie Taymor’s direction and costumes). I’ve been avoiding it for 12 years for no particular reason other than it’s a musical based on a cartoon. I’ve always just had more important or time-sensitive shows to see when I go to New York City. The Lion King has just surpassed Beauty and the Beast and now is the 8th longest running musical on Broadway. Quite a feat! Not to mention the several US and international tours that are currently in production. Luckily, I had the chance to see The Lion King for the first time in Mandalay Bay’s beautiful, spacious state-of-the-art theatre.
What a beautiful production – from the costumes, down to the set design; it’s visually stunning! And you can’t forget the memorable songs and story. In the first number, “Circle of Life”, you’ve already seen dozens of ingenious animal costumes/puppets – all of which are incredible. I was literally inches away from the actors as they proceeded down the aisles of the theatre to the stage. The elephants, birds, antelope, cheetah and the rest of the animals all gather to see Mufasa’s new child, Simba displayed on top of Pride Rock. And so begins the circle of life…
Everyone knows the story of The Lion King since it is 19th biggest grossing movie with several Academy, Golden Globes and Grammy awards and nominations. It’s the highest grossing cartoon of the 1990’s. It’s epic in it’s own right. It’s been so long since I’ve seen the cartoon that I forgot that I had every line and lyric memorized. There are some differences in the musical version – some added scenes and songs to help create some depth to the characters (especially the older Nala and Zazu) and plot. Unlike the changes in plot in Disney’s recent The Little Mermaid musical, I liked the changes/additions in The Lion King. One of my favorite numbers of the whole production was a new song called “Shadowlands” sung by the older Nala (Kissy Simmons). In one song, you learn about Nala’s frustrations, sorrow and fears – something you miss in the cartoon.
Besides being a beautiful costume parade, the choral music – that became the underlying thematic material throughout – was beautiful. The 40-plus cast members were in perfect tight harmony the entire show. Not only did everyone look beautiful and amazing, they sounded how they looked. There were a few striking performances that stood out against the rest: Scar (Thom Sesma), Older Nala (Kissy Simmons), Young Simba (Aubrey Omari Joseph) and Rafiki (Buyi Zama). Each one of these actors took command of that giant stage and held their own. Not once did their costume consume them; it only helped them further tell their story. Sesma’s interpretation of Scar was spot-on, down to his nasty snarl. Simmons’ powerful voice gave me chills and almost got me to cry when she sang “Shadowlands”. Joseph’s buoyant energy filled the theatre with young Simba’s curiosity and courage. And Zama held the show together (just as Rafiki holds the animals of Pride Rock together) with her powerful voice, character and monkey-charm.
There were only a few disappointments. With the amount of credits that Clifton Oliver (older Simba) has, I was underwhelmed by his acting and singing. He’s played Simba in L.A., Broadway and on the 1st National tour. You would think that this guy is gonna blow you away, but he didn’t! He didn’t nail either of his songs, but especially my favorite song, “Endless Night”. It felt constricted and overworked to the point that it had no life. Because the rest of the cast was so strong and the fact he only is in the second act, it didn’t effect the overall show. Mufasa (Alton F. White) didn’t necessarily command the stage as James Earl Jones’ voice did in the cartoon. White sang “They Live in You” beautifully, but I just didn’t feel Mufasa’s mammoth presence radiate.
The magnificent morphing set, designed by Richard Hudson, was incredible as it created beautiful allusions of caves, jungles, waterfalls and grasslands. I couldn’t believe how they manipulated the stage to do all of those changes in one show. At points, it was breathtaking.
Seeing my favorite childhood cartoon on stage was more memorable than I ever thought it would be. I loved it, plain and simple. The best part is that adults and children can equally love The Lion King. It’s part of why it was so successful as a cartoon and also why it won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It’s a beautiful story that’s set to great music by Elton John and Tim Rice. You add Julie Taymor’s creative vision on top of that and you’ve created an imaginative masterpiece.
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Listen to songs from the Original Cast Recording of The Lion King:
The Lion King at Mandalay Bay
Las Vegas, Nevada