Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
The Lion King has been playing on Broadway for more than 21 years at the Minskoff Theater and is still going strong. It opened at a time when English mega-musicals had been dominating broadway for quite a while, but Julie Taymor and associates outdid them. In translating the animated film to the stage, it was necessary to imagine a new vision and they gloriously did. Starting with Elton John and Tim Rice's songs from the film and some new ones by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer, and a book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, director Taymor, aided by Michael Curry, made heavy use of puppetry to create the world of the African Savannah. The show relies heavily on technology, but in service to tell its story.
This is not a musical that offers great roles for its actors, as they are asked to fit into a package, and physicality dominates. It is the full ensemble that makes this show work; as long as they are fresh, the show will succeed, and Disney has always maintained its products with great care. This touring production launched fairly recently, built to play in houses smaller than previous tours have done, but without much loss of overall quality. It is currently the only company touring the United States. The Van Wezel has little aisle space, so certain parts of the show designed to spill out all over the auditorium in other venues have had to adapt, but I doubt local audiences will notice or feel deprived.
There are many moments of breathtaking beauty in the show, including the opening pageant as all the animals assemble at Pride Rock to pay homage to the newborn lion cub, Simba, son of Mufasa and Sarabi. Another is the opening of act two, with birds flying off long poles over the audience. Even compromised a tad, the bird that seemed to be only a few feet above me was exciting to experience.
Rafiki, played by Buyi Zama and from South Africa, leads off the show, explaining "The Circle of Life." Her origin provides an authenticity to the performance. Gerald Ramey provides strength with a layer of paternal playfulness as Mufasa. Richard A. Phillips, Jr. as Young Simba, a role shared with Walter Russell III, sings and holds the stage well. Jared Dixon takes over as Simba in act two. It is his physical being that stands out, although he sings one of the added songs, "Endless Night," well. Nita Holloway is grown-up Nala, his friend from childhood and eventually love interest, in a warm and wistful performance. The villain of the story, Mufasa's brother Scar, is menacingly played by Spencer Plachy. The main comic relief comes from the meerkat Timon and Pumbaa, a warthog. They are played by Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz respectively, operating their costumes with great gusto. Greg Jackson as Mufasa's factotum Zazu flies all over the stage via his puppet bird. Martina Sykes, Keith Bennett and Robbie Swift are scary yet funny as a trio of hyenas.
James Dodgson is music director, leading a 10-piece band which features two percussionists, one on each side of the auditorium. He does an excellent job, especially with large portions of the score which are soundscapes, providing an aural sense of Africa.
The original production was under the direction of Julie Taymor, and she continues for the tour. The show turned her into a director to watch, although she has only had one success that comes close to duplicating this one, a production of The Magic Flute for The Metropolitan Opera. Choreography is by Garth Fagan.
Tickets are pricey, higher than Sarasota audiences are used to pay, lower than Broadway prices, but I doubt anyone who splurges will feel they didn't get great value for their entertainment dollars. Sources tell me that availability is scattered for the first two weeks of the engagement, better for the final week. My advice is to grab them quickly.
The Lion King, through March 31, 2019, at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information, call 800-826-9303 or visit www.VanWezel.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.lionking.com.
Principal Cast (in order of appearance):