The Lion King is a marvel, unrivaled in its beauty, brains and ingenuity.
FEBRUARY 4, 2024 — COSTA MESA
For days now, theater fans have stampeded like wildebeests to see the national tour of "The Lion King" at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where over 150-some employees, including 52 actors, 232 puppets, a 5-inch mouse, 25 different kinds of birds, a 13-foot elephant with a 9-foot ear span, 39 hyenas, 15 gazelles, 3 zebras and a host of backstage puppet surgeons, musicians, carpenters, hair and makeup artists, wardrobe staffers and creative geniuses have congregated to transport you directly to the Serengeti.
Suddenly you have fallen into what appears to be a primal paradise. Such is the magic wrought by the opening 10 minutes of ''The Lion King,'' director Julie Taymor's staged version of the Midas-touch cartoon movie that has generated millions for the Walt Disney Company. And the ways in which Ms. Taymor translates the film's opening musical number, ''Circle of Life,'' where an animal kingdom of the African plains gathers to pay homage to its leonine ruler and his newly born heir, is filled with astonishment and promise. For one thing, it is immediately clear that this production, which runs through February 25th, has its own distinctive vision of the fable, one that is miles away from standard Disney fare.
From the starry interlude where Mufasa comes back to life in the night sky to the simple brilliance of how Nick LaMedica believably pulls off playing the delightfully worried bird Zazu, its an exhibition that’s positively majestic, making it still the King in its own right.
The first few seconds of the show are as simple as they are stirring. Against a midnight-blue sky, Rafiki (Mukelisiwe Goba), the baboon (here presented as more shaman than simian, and, unlike the movie, made female), begins a call-and-response African chant song with singers perched all around the theater that swells like the Grammy-winning songs of Ladysmith Black Mambazo —"Naaaaaaaants ingonyama, bagithi Baba!" ("Here comes a lion, Father!"), setting the "Circle of Life" spinning in a way that is still mesmerizing 27 years on.
As the nighttime backdrop gives way to a brilliant orange morning, the show begins in earnest with a stunning coup de theatre: Two parades of giraffes, leopards, antelope, rhinos, elephants and other jungle creatures march from the back of the auditorium to the stage, an entrance that is, unquestionably, still the most pulse-quickening opener.
Some are puppets — a Bunraku-style leopard, a herd of veldt-skimming gazelles — while others are costumes — men on stilts for the giraffes, a giant pachyderm with a man in each leg. Even a stage full of dancing grasslands. As often as not, the boundaries between costume, puppetry and masks are blurred in inventions that draw audible gasps from the audience.
If you have young children, you probably know the plot. The lion cub Simba (a crowd-pleasing Mason Lawson at this performance), the heir to the throne of his heroic father, Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey), becomes the pawn of his father's evil brother and archrival, Scar (the delightfully villainous Peter Hargrave). When Scar murders Mufasa, he convinces the vulnerable cub that it is he who is responsible for the death. And Simba, in the tradition of young fairy tale heroes, flees the Pridelands and goes into exile.
As Scar and his army of hyenas destroy the ecosystem back home (yes, there's a good green message too), Simba grows into a robust young lionhood (the burly Darian Sanders). He's lured home by cub-hood pal, now sexy, fierce young lioness Nala (Jaxyn Damasco alternating with Aniya Simone) and by Rafiki and the awesome spirit of his father. Finally able to come to terms with his inner self, he's now ready to reclaim the throne, and the Circle of Life is restored.
But don't worry. Disney is certainly not lost in this mix. Fully on display is the studio’s traditional panoply of comic relief characters (the slapstick pairing of wiseguy meerkat Timon and lumbering warthog Pumbaa), spunky love interests (a superb Khalifa White as young adult Nala) and scary villains (Scar and his troops of Fascist hyenas). Disney’s films have never shied away from the horrific, and the stage show is no different, with the stampeding death of Mufasa all the more powerful owing to a much stronger father-son relationship than was established in the movie.
The wildebeest stampede is one of various set pieces (a waterfall, Mufasa’s face wondrously forming in the night sky) that has attending audiences buzzing — and the stage trickery used in their creation won’t be spoiled here. But it’s the endless stream of lovely, smaller touches — a smattering of fireflies, a blue silk lake that evaporates into the stage during a drought — that helps perpetuate “Lion King” in its symbiotic synergism as it moves from scene to scene, big moment to big moment.
Finally, what should not be overshadowed by the stunning physical production and terrific score is an ensemble that ranks with any of the best in the world. With a clever mask that sits atop his head and the ability to move over his face by adopting a posture, Peter Hargrave is a wickedly funny Scar, not quite as effete as his movie counterpart (obviously...it's a cartoon) but no less savage. And South African vocalist Mukelisiwe Goba, as the spiritual Rafiki, is a delightful force of gibbering energy and gets some of the biggest laughs in the show.
Speaking of laughs, much of the vaudeville-ish comedy from the movie has also been imported intact, and ”Hakuna Matata”-schilling faves Pumbaa the malodorous wart hog (John E. Brady) and Timon the fast-talking meerkat (Nick Cordileone) are still a very winning burlesque team.
At the center of the story is the cub himself, and two young actors alternate between roars. As noted, Mason Lawson played the first act’s young Simba on opening night (alternating later dates with Julian Villela), dancing and singing with the precocious affability of a vintage Michael Jackson. In Act 2, Darian Sanders takes over as the young adult Simba — athletic, cocky and strong-voiced.
But, out of all the fine performers in this cast, the one who most clearly gets the crucial role of emotion in the show is Gerald Ramsey, who plays the proud, loving patriarch lion Mustafa and whose performance is a master class in the show’s emotional trajectory: pride, sorrow, struggle, resilience and hope.
THE LION KING
WITH: Peter Hargrave as “Scar,” Gerald Ramsey as “Mufasa,” Mukelisiwe Goba as “Rafiki,” Nick Cordileone as “Timon,” Nick LaMedica as “Zazu,” John E. Brady as “Pumbaa,” Darian Sanders as “Simba,” Khalifa White as “Nala,” Forest VanDyke as “Banzai,” Martina Sykes as “Shenzi” and Robbie Swift as “Ed.”
The role of “Young Simba” is alternated between Mason Lawson and Julian Villela and the role of “Young Nala” is alternated between Jaxyn Damasco and Aniya Simone. Rounding out the cast are William John Austin, Iman Ayana, Isaiah Bailey, Samantha Lauren Barriento, Eric Bean, Jr., Layla Brent, Vernon Brooks III, Sasha Caicedo, Lauren Carr, Thembelihle Cele, Daniela Cobb, Gabriel Croom, Lyric Danae, Marquis Floyd, Tony Freeman, Aliah James, Jolina Javier, Joel Karie, Samaree Lawson, Gabisile Manana, Amber Mayberry, Justin Mensah, Sarita Amani Nash, Nhlanhla Ndlovu, Aaron Nelson, Jeremy Noel, Sicelo Ntshangase, Erick D. Patrick, Sayiga Eugene Peabody, Yael Pineda-Hall, Poseletso Sejosingoe, Sadé Simmons, Jennifer Theriot, Courtney Thomas, Denzel Tsopnang, Brinie Wallace and Jordan Nicole Willis.
The Broadway score features Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs from the Lion King animated film along with three new songs by John and Rice; additional musical material by South African Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer; and music from "Rhythm of the Pride Lands," an album inspired by the original music in the film, written by Lebo M, Mark Mancina and Hans Zimmer. Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi; adapted from the screenplay by Ms. Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton.
Directed by Julie Taymor; associate director Anthony Lyn; choreography by Garth Fagan; associate choreographer Marey Griffith; sets by Richard Hudson; costumes by Julie Taymor; hair & makeup design by Michael Ward; lighting by Donald Holder; mask and puppet design by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry; music director, Karl Shymanovitz; music supervisor Clement Ishmael; music produced for the stage and additional score by Mark Mancina; associate music producer, Robert Elhai; orchestrators Robert Elhai and David Metzger; additional vocal score, vocal arrangements and choral director, Lebo M.; production stage manager Charles Underhill; fight director Rick Sordelet; Presented by Disney Theatrical Group; managing director DTG Andrew Flatt; production supervisor Lisa Dawn Cave.
The Costa Mesa engagement of Disney’s The Lion King is presented by arrangement with Avenue of the Arts Costa Mesa, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel and CIBC Private Wealth Management and is a subscription offering of the Broadway Series.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report