Stage Review: The Lion King Roars At The Fox Theatre
by Jeff Ritter
Published: August 18, 2012
I was probably the only person at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis last night who was over the age of two and had not seen Disney’s “The Lion King.” I have of course heard the Elton John songs – "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" is a beautiful number – and knew it involved a pride of lions in an African savannah. I also knew that the stage production was wildly successful on Broadway and was particularly noted for the elaborate costumes. That prior knowledge did little to prepare me for the national tour of The Lion King.
I don’t think there can be is a better opening number than "The Circle of Life" sequence at the beginning of the show, as King Mufasa presents his new baby prince to the assembled throng of native animals. I wasn’t expecting the variety of animals to assemble via the audience. I noticed a couple of actors in the upper balcony near the stage manipulating prop birds, but then someone gasped behind me and I turned just in time to see a rhino lumber up the aisle right beside me. The next aisle over had an elephant sauntering towards the stage. Gazelles, zebras, birds and more danced down the aisle to join the festivities on stage. Two giraffes stepped gracefully to their best vantage point of the royal child. A verb like amazing doesn’t quite cover it. Throughout the performance I found myself watching the costumes more than the actors, especially the cheetah. Some of the costumes were simple garments with elaborate headdresses. Others incorporated puppetry and a costume designed to camouflage the human element. The results were absolutely spectacular.
The production features one of the strongest casts I’ve ever seen. From top to bottom, the actors completely inhabited their roles. Brent Harris, playing Scar, had the kind of stage presence I’d expect from Tim Curry or Eddie Izzard. He exuded a deliciuosly sinister malevolence. Mufasa’s Dionne Randolph had a deep, resonant voice and moved with the authority of a king accustomed to challenges to his rule, every bit the hero that Scar was not. The trifecta of Nick Cordileone as Timon the meerkat, Ben Lipitz as Pumbaa the warthog and Mark David Kaplan as Zazu the hornbill brought impeccable comic relief. I have a built-in resistance to child actors in general, but the actors who portrayed the youthful versions of Simba and Nala were both endearing. The Playbills lists Zavion J. Hill and Adante Power for Young Simba and Khail Bryant, Kailah McFadden and Sade Phillip-Demorcy as Young Nala. To be honest, I waspaying more attention to their actions and the costumes of their fellow thespians to notice whether the young stars tagged i and out during the show or if they are taking turns from night to night. Their adult counterparts, Jelani Remy (Simba) and Syndee Winters (Nala), were excellent in voice, timing and physical movement. Wise mandrill Rafiki, played by Buyi Zama stole every scene she was in. She was absolutely amazing, particularly as her rrole involved relatively little English. Conveying information and connecting to Midwesterners without using English is no small feat, and she simply nailed it. I'd see the show again just to watch her work. Rounding out the principal players were Tryphena Wade as Sarabi the lioness and Rashada Dawan, Keith Bennett, and Robbie Swift as the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed, respectively. Beyond this already sizable list was a huge number of puppeteers, dancers and singers that brought Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi's book and Elton John and Tim Rice's songs together under the steady hand of director Julie Tamor.
Musically, The Lion King is top notch, though I don’t know that their songs are as instantly memorable as they are beautifully ambient. I knew, of course, that Elton John recorded music for the animated program, and they were both hit songs. I hoped, but wasn’t entirely sure, that "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was part of the show. I’ve always liked that old song by The Tokens. The rest of the numbers were all new to me. They were all fine, but I think I preferred the songs that weren’t in English. I didn’t know what they were saying, but I could appreciate the presentation. Pitch, inflection, and tone say as much as words. The performers were all of fine voice, but Buyi Zama's commanding presence captured the audience's full attention even when they didn't necessarily know what she was singing about. Syndee Winters also stood out with a clear and beautiful voice.
Rehashing the plot would seem unnecessary; since I’m sure I am in a very small minority of people who went in to this performance with no real prior knowledge of the characters or the story. Instead I want to draw your attention to the art of stagecraft and how physical special effects can advance the narrative. Nowadays, any junior high kid with a decent computer can create special effect sequences for video. You can see their handiwork plaster all over YouTube, in everything from "Star Wars" fan films to superhero mash-ups. I bet if you said, “OK, I need you to create a stampeding heard of wildebeests on a live theatrical stage,” you’d get some blank stares before someone asks, “What’s a wildebeest?” With Disney’s resources and resourcefulness they could have handled scenes like that a number or ways, including integrating video. I was excited to see that the production kept it “old school” and designed a relatively spartan set and filled it with clever set pieces. Many scenes incorporated a stone cliff that often wandered around the stage for dramatic effect. The aforementioned stampede scene was achieved by using several techniques: the set backdrops were configured to form a canyon of sorts and each screen from the rear of the stage forward used a crude but effective method of projecting silhouettes of animals bounding through the light source, a technique that harkens back to early animation. At the front of the stage, live actors in wildebeest costumes jogged and jostled in place, putting Simba and Mufasa at risk. Eventually Scar puts an end to his beloved brother’s reign as king, but the scene was visually much more arresting than it might have otherwise been. The demise of both Mufasa and Scar utilized strobe effects to make their fall from the cliff seem in slow motion. From where I was sitting I didn’t even spot the wires. There was also an interesting perspective twist when Simba stares into his reflection in the water and sees his father. The backdrop undulated like water briefly before shapes appeared that quickly formed the face of the former king. This was much more effective than merely having the actor tell the audience what he was seeing while he stared at the stage floor. Mechanical illusions like these always fascinate me and make my live theater experiences so much more memorable than most of my recent cinematic excursions.
I regard The Lion King as one of the very best stage productions I’ve ever seen. From the dramatic acting to the multicultural music to the incredible costumes and stage effects, the show is a must see. That said, I would suggest that parents of very small children resist the urge to bring them. The child sitting behind me could not have been more than two, nor any less interested in the show. The child seated across the aisle from me was six or seven and seemed mesmerized by the performance. A couple of years can make all the difference, for your child’s enjoyment, your own, and those seated around you. Also, be aware that this show is fairly strict about being seated before the curtain comes up before each half. It wouldn’t do for an audience member to trip up a hyena or an elephant coming down the aisle, so please keep that in mind if you plan to use the rest room, run outside for a smoke or a phone call, or are trying to get refreshments at intermission.
The Lion King runs August 15 through September 2 at the Fox Theatre. Don’t miss out on one of the most immersive musical theater experiences you’ll ever see.