I was in East Africa when The Lion King was released in 1994. When I got home a couple of weeks later and saw it in the theater, I couldn’t believe how well the animators captured the feeling of being on the plains of Kenya or Tanzania and watching a family of elephants silhouetted by a sunset or giraffes gracefully gliding across the horizon. Before I saw the theatrical production for the first time Thursday night, I was a little skeptical of how that same feeling could be captured by humans in costumes and puppets, despite the hype the musical has enjoyed for two decades since its 1997 debut in Minneapolis.
But the spectacle of actors portraying the creatures of the savannah—marching down the aisles, swirling poles with cloth birds fluttering, manipulating giant elephant puppets, giving a cheetah the natural grace the animal is due, even bring the plants of the jungle to life—is breathtaking.
That a ’90s kids movie would translate into a Broadway smash shouldn’t have been surprising. The animated Disney movies of the late 20th Century borrowed heavily from the stage musical in their structure. The soundtrack from Elton John and Tim Rice rivaled the best Broadway shows of that decade, and the best moments from the adaptation are the showstopper hits from the film: the iconic introduction of Simba during “Circle of Life,” the hilarious interplay between Simba and Zazu during “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and the classic Timba/Pumba duet “Hakuna Matata.”
But that’s as much due to the beauty of the ensemble’s costuming and puppetry as it is to the strong vocals of the main cast. Just as the psychedelic animation of jungle animals propels “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” in the film, the introduction of brightly colored plush animal costumes on stage gives that number a more playful feel than anything else in the show. And as Simba wrestles with his identity in “He Lives in You,” hidden dancers form an awe-inspiring Mufasa mask in the sky that makes Rafiki’s magic come alive.
The choral arrangements of Lebo M (like the iconic opening Zulu singing) take a more prominent role in the stage production with Rafiki (Buyi Zama reprising her role on Broadway) recast as one of the show’s few key female roles. The baboon also provides some of the ample physical comedy of the show that, along with updated jokes (like an imprisoned Zazu singing “Let It Go” from Frozen instead of “It’s a Small World” to annoy Scar), make it such a great first trip to the theater for kids of any age.
Nick Cordileone as Timon and Broadway regular Ben Lipitz as Pumba were fantastic, though they seem to be almost cast as impersonators of Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, respectively. Apart from Zama and the two kids playing young Simba and Nala, the stand-out performance is Greg Jackson as Zazu with perfect comedic timing and stuffiness.
The costumes are faithful to the Julie Taymor original, an artistic achievement that should make this a bucket-list play for anyone who loves the arts. It’s still a hefty tag on Broadway, but the touring production makes the highest grossing Broadway production of all time a little more accessible. And the Atlanta show was one of the best musicals I’ve seen on any stage.