Disney’s The Lion King has returned to Minnesota for a fifth time, following its world premiere at the Orpheum Theatre in 1997 with return engagements in 2005, 2007, and 2012. From the reaction of the audience last night, its return has been long-awaited. The crowd roared as the curtain opened to the spectacular first scene where the jungle animals gather to pay homage to the new crown prince Simba. The elephant lumbering down the aisle of the theater along with gazelles, zebras, antelope, giraffes and birds fluttering on long poles is an amazing sight — setting a high bar, which is met throughout the show.
The stage production of The Lion King is in fact the king of the media jungle. In 2014 it topped $6 billion in gross revenue and holds the title for largest box office receipts for any work in any media worldwide. It tells the story of Mufasa the lion king, his son Simba, and the jealousy of Mufasa’s brother Scar, who crafts a plot to have Mufasa and Simba killed so he can rule the kingdom.
Mufasa dies and Simba, who blames himself for this father’s death, runs away. Under Scar’s rule the pride lands become dry and lifeless. In exile, Simba grows into a young lion. Finally, Simba is drawn back to his home to avenge the death of his father and take his rightful place as the new king. This is indeed the continuation of life told by the signature song “Circle of Life.”
The story of The Lion King will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Disney movie. While the original movie had five songs with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, additional music using a unique combination of Western music and African rhythms was added for the stage production. Buyi Zama as Rafiki opens the show with her powerful voice that calls the animals and heralds the birth of Simba. Rafiki brings the show full circle by welcoming Simba back with a reprise of “He Lives In You,” which reminds Simba of his heritage and birthright.
Gerald Ramsey (Mufasa), Patrick R. Brown (Scar), Aaron Nelson (Simba), Nia Holloway (Nala), Nick Cordileone (Timon), and Robbie Swift (Pumbaa) all combine their talents to bring these animals to life — but it is the ensemble who give depth to this show with their creative costuming and movement. A flowing cloth becoming a river and 20 headdresses becoming the grasslands are just two examples.
The Lion King is a huge production, employing 134 people directly involved with each performance of the show, including 49 cast members. It takes 14 semi-trailers to transport the puppets and set from city to city. As director, costume designer, mask/puppet co-designer and lyricist, Julie Taymor is really the creative force behind this musical. Her vision is to not hide anything, but show the audience the humans behind the masks, the wheels that move the gazelles across the stage, the stilts that give the giraffes their majesty and the work of the four actors it takes to bring the 13-foot elephant to life. Because a mask is lifeless, Taymor relies on the humans to add the expression and emotion to the characters.
Of special note is a sensory-friendly production which will be offered on Saturday, July 30 at 2 p.m. For the first time in Minnesota individuals with sensory, social, and learning disabilities will be able to come to a touring Broadway show designed to create a supportive environment. Adjustments will be made to the sound and lighting, and quiet spaces will be provided, among other accommodations.
Be prepared to be blown away by this spectacular production. It is truly a delight and wonder on every level of the imagination.
Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust