Birds fly at the ends of poles held by mesmerizing singers throughout the theatre in glorious costumes. The aisles teem with activity as large African animals stream down toward centre stage where they gather around pride rock to hear the announcement of the birth of lion cub Simba, the heir to the animal kingdom. Gazelles, a cheetah, life-sized giraffes and an enormous elephant followed by a baby elephant captivate the audience and draw us into the story.
Simba is the heir to the kingdom but his uncle Scar is not pleased at having been bumped from succession and plots to rid himself of his competition. Scar lures Simba to a dangerous elephant graveyard but when his plan fails to destroy the cub, he decides on an even more treacherous path. He himself will dispose of King Mufasa and young Simba will be blamed. Racked with guilt Simba flees and Scar moves his hyenas in to control the kingdom. Scar sits on the throne as king but as with most rulers whose strongest attributes are greed and ego, he fails as a leader and sends the kingdom into ruin.
Simba, who has been living on the outskirts of the kingdom, encounters his long lost friend Nala, now fully grown, when she is forced to hunt outside the kingdom’s boundaries for quarry. She returns with Simba to battle the ferocious hyenas and rescue the kingdom from Scar. Hakuna matata!
The characters in this show are an eclectic mix of intricate costumes, wearable puppets, masks and mechanical wizardry. It is a show of extraordinary visuals, from the lighting and the use of scrims, to the indication of movement through the clever use of props of dancing grasses. Some of the best visuals that never fail to draw gasps of awe from the audience are during the second half of the show under the stars with Simba during “Endless Night.”
The level of dancing also stands out. In fact, during Scar’s song “Be Prepared” the singing (more like talking with lots of exclamation) is lost among the beauty and precision of the leaping hyena dancers. In his defense, Scar (Patrick R. Brown) knocks it out of the park with his comedic timing throughout the show and later shows us he does indeed have singing chops with “The Madness of King Scar.” Enter Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz) who, incidentally, should be billed as ‘show stealers’ (when they showed up several of the children in audience yelled out “hakuna matata”) and to be sure, they earn every bit of their notoriety.
The second half of the show opens with birds flying throughout the audience: a highly effective way to draw us back into the story.
We saw an adjustment to the sound (perhaps microphones) in the second half, which was a welcome surprise. In the first half of the show the singers were competing much to hard with the music and at times overrun by the orchestra.
During the second half of the show another change occurred. Farah Lopez took over for Tshidi Mayne in the role of Rafiki. Mayne’s voice appeared strained during the first half of the show but it wasn’t until Lopez started singing that it was clear the extent of the vocal demands Mayne would have to have faced in the second half. It was a wise decision to favor Mayne’s voice, and Lopez was astounding.
It is interesting to note the versatility of many of the performers. Lopez is also listed as understudy for Shenzi, as well as a swing: very different roles with very different demands. Another name that jumps out is Tony Freeman, listed as Standby for Scar, Zazu, Timon, and Pumbaa. Though all four roles have a common comedic thread, they are vastly different with their own set of intricacies. There are several other performers who are prepared to jump into different roles at the drop of a hat. You simply have to be at the top of your game to attempt even one other role. Handling multiple roles is impressive.
Some of the transitions seem a little jarred or the timing off: Scar catching the mouse; Simba’s transition from a cub to young lion, and the romance between Simba and Nala doesn’t read very clearly, but the pacing is spot on and the overall visuals are so stunning it is difficult to fault that.
The Lion King runs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through to July 12, 2015. Click HERE for a link to tickets and times.