Despite the fact that this production heralds the beginning of The Lion King’s first UK tour, it is apparently the 20th staging of the show to premiere internationally. Those of us who saw the original Broadway and London productions will vividly recall how director Julie Taymor’s groundbreaking vision deservedly took the theatre world by storm. What is interesting is seeing how the piece translates to a new generation more than a decade on.
For the most part, the show remains a vivid visual treat and boasts one of the best ever opening sequences created for a piece of musical theatre. Puppetry and masks have become integral tools in the art of theatrical storytelling in recent times but Taymor and Michael Curry’s designs which so cleverly combined the animal and actor were ahead of the game. The Hippodrome’s stalls have been reconfigured in order to allow the Circle of Life animal procession - elephant, giraffes, zebras, antelope etc - to take place but the extra effort certainly pays off.
What is also striking is how well Richard Hudson’s simple but innovative scenic design and Donald Holder’s lighting complement all the other visual elements - the glorious sunrise on the savannah being the most iconic image of all. It is when these two elements do not gel as well that the staging can appear a little tired or dated, such as in the Elephant Graveyard or when we know a character is about to fall to their doom because their harness wires can be seen so clearly.
The creative team behind this tour also needs to trust in the emotions behind the story being told. Okay, the libretto is Disney meets Hamlet, but there are messages about love, loss, hope and community that are worth taking seriously. It feels as though Stephen Carlile, as the dastardly Scar set on destroying his brother Mufasa (Cleveland Cathnott) so he can become King of the Pridelands, has been directed to do the opposite and dramatic scenes are undermined as a result. Similarly, when Meilyr Sion’s Zazu or John Hasler’s Timon, both very likeable in their roles, jump out of character to mention IKEA or DIY SOS, the evening switches to pantomime. An hyena version of the Chippendales is a low point too.
However, that is not to say there isn’t plenty to praise, particularly in Act II when Carole Stennett gives such dignity and physical elegance to her intense portrayal of Nala. Her performance and that of other members of the ensemble during Shadowland is a highlight and has a poignancy lacking in other important scenes. In addition, there is also a depth of feeling about Nicholas Nkuna’s Simba during the songs Endless Night and He Lives in You as he slowly but surely realises he must return home and face his past.
Interestingly, all three of the songs mentioned above are not the work of Elton John and Tim Rice, but the result of different collaborations between Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Lebo M, Hans Zimmer and Taymor. While youngsters fond of the Disney movie might disagree, it is these compositions which mix mainstream pop with African influences that often stand out during the evening, including the second half’s infectious opener joyfully performed by the ensemble.
Ultimately perhaps it is the character of healer and truth teller Rafiki, gloriously brought to life on this occasion by Gugwana Dlamini, that sums up everything that is memorable about The Lion King, the joy, colour and spirituality. It is these ingredients that are likely to attract new audiences to the production, even though the experience might not quite take their breath away as it did for others first time round.