In my 25 years of living in the great city that is London, The Lion King musical has been selling-out eight times a week for 19-years during these 25 years of existence. And yet, last week Thursday, was the first time I entered the Lyceum Theatre in Covent Garden to watch what is now the top-earning title in box-office history for both stage productions and films. Whilst I knew of The Lion King musical’s success, I was quite dubious of how the show can elevate what was already a marvellous film that helped return Disney to its previous status of being at the top of the entertainment industry during its renaissance in the ’90s.
What immediately sets the bar high with The Lion King is the show’s ability in making one feel as if they are immersed in this captivating animal kingdom. You instantly forget the cold, wet and grey weather outside thanks to the raw and vibrant colours that fill the stage and the Lyceum as a whole. Hearing Elton John’s “Circle of Life” reverberate around the theatre is almost haunting as the echo hits you with its strength and reels you in to enjoy Simba’s turbulent journey. It’s Julie Taymor’s artistic nous that pushes The Lion King to its boundaries; when you come to watch the musical you have your own perceptions on how the characters should look like given that we’ve all watched the animated film. But Taymor’s vision is unique and should be treated as a wholly separate entity. Take Rafiki for example, who is one of the only main characters to not wear a mask but is covered in African ornaments, a wonderful painted face that resembles a mandrill monkey and carries a tall wooden stick to cement her wise elder-like aura. This all combined together creates this extension of the Rafiki character that doesn’t negate nor devalue the animated version of the character but rather helps re-imagine The Lion King as a whole, which ultimately is the show’s purpose.
The dialogue in the show maintains the film’s ability to make you laugh through the sometimes dark, Hamletesque, story-lines. The role of Timon and Pumba and Zazu help bring comedy that is to be enjoyed by both children and adults. While Mufasa and Scar provide the musical’s darker and more serious moments but unlike the film, Scar is almost likeable due to his wit and dark humour; which is a refreshing take on the story as he’s demonised in the film. Rafiki, like in the film, encapsulates the wisdom, Africaness and beauty of The Lion King with Brown Lindwe Mkhize’s alluring vocals and detailed acting drawing in the attentive audience.
The level of detail in the costumes, makeup and puppetry are utterly staggering and Taymor creates a visual feast for the eyes aided by Garth Fagan’s authentic and energetic choreography that makes you forget you are watching humans. The combination of African masks, Japanese Kabuki costumes, Malaysian shadow puppetry all conjoin together to create this great spectacle that’s yet to be rivalled. It’s clear to see why The Lion King musical is clear of its competitors; is its focus on not trying to be a carbon copy of the great film but rather it’s own entity that has extended one of the greatest films of all time.