The Lion King is a feat of theatrical design. It has been since it was introduced to the world at the Orpheum theater in 1997 in it's pre Broadway run. This feat continues on Broadway today, in cities across the world and in multiple tours, one of which has brought the show back to the Orpheum theater in Minneapolis.
It is refreshingly original in it's design of the costumes, which revolve around a concept that the director Julie Taymor developed of showing both the actor and who, or what they are portraying in a beautifully crafted balance. Which in the Lion King can be anything from lions to gazelles, large elephants to an anthill, hyenas to grassland. But this innovative approach in a Broadway musical of combining the actor and mask or puppet is built on centuries of theatrical tradition, from shadow to bunraku pupperty, and the art of African masks. If this sounds like a lot for the Lion King, a musical that is based on one of the best known Disney movies (which is why I'm not going to go into describing the plot) to take on, it is, but it was apparent at the Orpheum Theater on Thursday night that the Lion King integrates all these things seamlessly.
Mukelisiwe Goba as “Rafiki” in THE LION KING North American Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Just as essential as the costumes in setting the place for this story, was the movement of those in the costumes. From the subtle side to side head movement of the lions, to the elegant leaping of the gazelles and nervous sporadic movements of the hyenas. The costumes paired with the choreography lent the actors on stage to becoming as close to animals they are portraying as possible while at preserving this timeless story (it was loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet after all). This pairing of wardrobe and movement did what a lot of great theater does, it utterly transports you.
It is unusual for me to go straight into the design aspects of a musical, skipping over the music and performances. But don't worry Lion King excels in those areas as well. Although I did feel like there was a sound mixing problem throughout several numbers that I hope is improved upon later in the run.
As the musical is based off of the movie, it has crowd favorites by Elton John and Tim Rice such as The Circle of Life, I Just Can't Wait To Be King, Can you Feel the Love Tonight and Hakuna Matata but most of my favorite songs were not on this list. The exception being The Circle of Life which is a perfect introduction to the musical as a whole and nearly had me in tears. My favorites instead were the songs that were added of the musical by Lebo M. such as He Lives In You, One by One and music for the Stampede. Just as the costumes and scenery are transporting, these new songs do much the same along with being beautiful on their own. I Just Can't Wait To Be King and Hakuna Matata I felt failed to make it past just being fun songs. But with an audience full of young theater goers who are familiar with the movie, these songs are needed and are still a treat in their own way. After all what would Lion King be without Hakuna Matata?
The cast that tells this story and don these fantastic costumes is very strong in their own right. But the two standouts for me were Buya Zama as the baboon Rafiki (different actor that in the picture of Rafiki above) and Patrick R. Brown as the villain Scar. They both brought humor but in very different ways. Although they were both very physical with their roles as everyone in Lion King is, Zama's Rafiki was fun, light hearted, but also one of the wisest characters in the show, with a beautiful and powerful voice. While on the other side of the sceptrum Scar is scary and the humor is needed to keep his character from being too overwhelming but Brown controlled this balance in a manor that appeared effortless.
If you were ever wondering what made Lion King so successful, why it has made more than a billion dollars and run almost 20 years on Broadway, the answer can easily be found at the Orpheum Theater until August 7. Hennepin Theater Trust is also doing something else truly original with the Lion King on Saturday July 30th with a sensory friend performance, more information can be found here.
Did you also see Lion King? Share your thoughts below.
I would also like to thank Hennepin Theater Trust for inviting me to this show.