By Morgan Politzer
Disney is by now well-known for making its most successful movies into Broadway musicals. They have the uncanny ability to make us believe in once upon a time or that kingdom far away, and director Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King” is no exception. A huge orange sun cast a fiery glow on the stage, rising into the sky during the famous opening line of “Circle of Life.” Giraffes created by people walking on stilts, a life-size elephant and flocks of birds were brought to life with absolute grace and elegance. It was color and love and passion and hate and music all thrown together, yet they somehow melded together to create something magical and powerful.
By far the most striking part of this show are the technical components. The stationary set itself is minimalistic and a very old style of production, with simple columns and well-selected mood lighting. It was everything else brought to the stage that gave it its zest. Simply put, this show has earned its longstanding place on Broadway and doesn’t deserve to be confined to a smaller stage. Part of its sweeping grandeur is the elaborate, Broadway-caliber detail put into every moment.
As animals meander through the aisles up onto the stage, we are suddenly transported to the Savannah as Pride Rock looms tall and proud over the kingdom. Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) and Sarabi (Kimber Sprawl) watch as Rafiki (Buyi Zama) holds baby Simba high over the other animals, each captivatingly believable.
As the show progresses, so too does the complexity of the production. Watching the actors, the audience is treated to what Taymor calls the Double Event — the animal and the person at the same time. The two become one as costume, lighting and makeup allow them to seamlessly blend together.
Parts of the show are performed with the actors in silhouette, so rather than seeing the actors, the audience only sees the outline of the animal they portray, creating the illusion that there really are giraffes and hyenas wandering around the stage.
The well-loved tale of a young cub on his journey to self-discovery was able to captivate the room with its effective use of projections and shadows. Scenes switched between the actors on the stage and trained puppeteers creating miniature shadows of the characters, breathing new life into scenes that easily could have been horrifically boring. Chase scenes, fight scenes and technically complex scenes were made that much better by watching them unfold with graceful and realistic shadows, glowing against light designer Donald Holder’s brilliant backdrops.
While the technology of the show is what brings it to life, there would be nothing to bring to life without the cast.
Hired as actors, the cast must learn to be puppeteers to operate characters like Zazu (Greg Jackson), Scar, (Mark Campbell) and the hyenas (Martina Sykes, Keith Bennett, Robbie Swift). Young Simba (Joziyah Jean-Felix, Ramon Reed) and Young Nala (Danielle W. Jalade, Gloria Manning) were perfectly charming as they rode around on giant birds and snuck through the elephant graveyard. Each actor’s movements had to embody the animal they were portraying: the graceful arch and curve of the lions and lionesses, the short stubby waddle of Timon (Nick Cordileone), and the lovable bumbling trot of Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz).
As with most theater, “The Lion King” can be put into a modern context. On the surface, we all recognize the theme of coming of age and the uplifting story of Simba and his friends. But on a deeper level, “The Lion King” has been able to effectively send its audience subconscious methods. At the start of Act 2, we are suddenly faced with corrupt rulers, changing climates, and a lack of available resources, a situation not far off from our current global climate.
As Campbell put it, “If you hate musical theater, you’ll love “The Lion King.” If you love musical theater, you’ll love “The Lion King.”
“The Lion King” is playing at the Hippodrome in Baltimore, Maryland. Tickets can be purchased here.
Featured Photo Credit: Dashaun Young as Simba. (Joan Marcus/ The Hippodrome)
Morgan Politzer is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.