Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

The Lion King
National Tour
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule


Buyi Zama
Photo by Joan Marcus
The inhabitants of Pride Rock are not strangers to America's Finest City. Disney Theatrical Productions' musical spectacle The Lion King was presented in 2005 and 2009 at the San Diego Civic Theatre. This is the first time the spectacle has played San Diego since it became the third longest running Broadway show, passing Cats in October 2015.

For those that do not know the plot inside and out, the following is a brief summary. A mighty feline king, Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey), helps prepare his young son Simba (BJ Covington and Julian Rivera-Summerville alternate in the role) to become the ruler of the African savanna, the Pridelands. Unfortunately for them, Mufasa's evil brother Scar (Mark Campbell) wants to take over as the leader of the kingdom. Scar's cunning Shakespeare-esque plans leave a lasting negative impact on Mufasa and Simba's lives.

Julie Taymor's direction continues to make the live version a fresh experience. Her staging and costumes are never a simple replication of the cinematic hit. She presents a world—along with Garth Fagan's multifaceted choreography, Richard Hudson's massive set, and Donald Holder's mood enhancing lighting—that embraces African culture combined with imaginative fantasy.

Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi's book incorporates most of the dialogue from the 1994 animated movie. The ensemble completely commits to famously intense and comedic moments featured in the story. Besides some new scenes and tunes, the biggest change to the tale was Taymor's decision to turn the male shaman mandrill Rafiki (Buyi Zama) into a female role. From the opening a capella chant, "Nants Ingonyama," Zama commands the stage with her fervent voice and playful acting skills.

Children and adults were delighted on opening night by puppeteers Drew Hirshfield, Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Keith Bennett, Robbie Swift, Nick Cordileone, and Ben Lipitz. With puppet design by Taymor and Michael Curry, the performers' comic timing mixes humor for all ages with witty comments. Cordileone and Lipitz especially make a hilarious team portraying the meerkat/warthog duo, Timon and Pumbaa.

Once Simba gets older, he turns into a complex animal with themes of guilt and redemption tying into his maturity. As the grown up cat, Aaron Nelson takes audiences on his journey of growth in a relatable as well as understated way. Providing a formidable foe for Simba, Campbell depicts Mufasa's black sheep sibling with wicked charisma. His humor and menace allow Scar to be a worthy villain of the evening.

Composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice wrote a lot of enjoyable songs for the motion picture and the live sensation. "Circle of Life," "I Just Can't Wait to be King," and "Hakuna Matata" feature a similar optimistic style used in the big screen classic. However, additional music and lyrics from Hans Zimmer, Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, and Taymor fuel significant heartrending moments. Mancina, Rifkin, and M.'s song "They Live in You" touchingly reflects upon the bond between Young Simba and his highly respected dad. Ramsey sings the spiritual number with a peaceful calmness that will likely touch grown-ups in the audience.

Musical director/conductor Jamie Schmidt meticulously leads members in the orchestra pit as well as live percussionists. San Diego artists and touring musicians provide melodies that match the atmosphere of the epic phenomenon.

One interesting fact about The Lion King's engagement at the Civic Theatre is that this is the first time the adventure has been performed after being retooled in 2010. Six minutes were cut, including the hornbill Zazu's (Hirshfield) solo number "The Morning Report." Although the current incarnation runs smoothly, some longtime fans might miss Mufasa's majordomo tune and the full-length version of "The Madness of King Scar." On the other hand, those watching the theatrical event for the first time will not notice any alterations.

Visually absorbing and with no shortage of pathos, The Lion King remains an eye-popping achievement on a large scale. Taymor's towering rendition continues to wow theatregoers.

Broadway/San Diego presents The Lion King through October 2, 2016, at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Ave, San Diego. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $25.00 and can be purchased online at www.broadwaysd.com or by phone at 1-619-564-3000. For more information on the tour, visit www.lionking.com.


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