Review: The Lion King (Mirvish)

Circle_Of_Life

Mirvish presents the return of Disney’s hit Broadway musical The Lion King in Toronto

The Lion King, currently playing a return engagement in Toronto at Mirvish’s Princess of Wales Theatre, begins with what has become one of the most iconic opening numbers on Broadway; The Circle of Life. The lone figure of Rafiki the Baboon incants the famous opening chant from the film; “Nan ts’ngonya ma bakithi baba,” a bright yellow crepe-paper sun slowly rises as performers in a seemingly endless array of full-body animal costumes parade down the aisles of the theatre. It’s a transportive, jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring piece of stagecraft.

The show is not what you would typically expect when you think of Disney; it is so much more than a glorified theme park revue of a popular animated movie.

I first saw the original Canadian production of The Lion King at the Princess of Wales Theatre during its run from 2000 to 2004 and was instantly captivated by the inventive, imaginative adaptation of what I thought would be an unstageable film.

Director Julie Taymor lead a large team of writers, composers and production designers to completely re-invent and re-imagine the story for the stage. The creative team’s work brings The Lion King to a whole new stratus.

Firstly, the show is a stunning triumph in production design. The costumes and masks by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry heavily reference African art and are constructed in a way where they don’t obscure the actors’ faces allowing the performer to connect with the audience and convey the humanity behind the animal characters.

The music has also been transformed. While all of the familiar songs from the original film are still there, for the stage version Elton John and Tim Rice’s catchy if insubstantial pop songs are combined with additional songs by Taymor, Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Hans Zimmer that allow for a greater degree of character and plot development.

The true musical soul of the show is South African composer Lebo M’s big, bold choral arrangements. The fusion of Lebo M’s South African chorales and film composer Hans Zimmer’s musical score is in turns dramatic and uplifting. It’s a shame that on opening night the music was diminished by a disappointingly flat-sounding audio mix.

Story-wise, while the basic plot of the film remains in tact, book writers Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi also re-worked the script placing more emphasis on the female characters. In the stage version Rafiki the Baboon is a high priestess, the spiritual leader of the Pridelands, and a larger emphasis is placed on the character of the lioness Nala making her a strong female lead.

The lead performers are consistently strong but the standout for me was Brown Lindiwe Mkhize in the role of Rafiki. Mkhize is the complete package; she has an amazingly agile voice and sings in both the Western and South African styles with finesse and she deftly pulls off the character work and physical comedy required for the role. Another highlight is Nia Holloway in the role of Nala; her soulful voice lends her character an air of wisdom beyond her years.

Having seen both the original Toronto sit-down production 13 years ago and the current tour, I did notice a few differences in the staging. I thought the touring production looked and felt a bit smaller on stage. There are also quite a few technical elements that were scaled down for the tour. For example, the original production used hydraulic lifts to move scenery and performers up from traps in the stage whereas in the touring production sets just track on from the wings.

The changes take away a bit of the show’s overall “wow” factor but these are the types of concessions that have to be made in order to bring a show like this on the road.

The Lion King certainly still has the ability to dazzle after all these years. I think the current touring company is very strong. It’s definitely worth seeing if you didn’t catch it the first time around. It’s also worth seeing again and sharing with a new generation of theatregoers.

Details:

  • The Lion King is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King Street West) through June 15, 2014
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Wednesday and Saturday at 1:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
  • Tickets $45.00 to $140.00
  • Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Princes of Wales Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com

Photo of Brown Lindiwe Mkhize by Joan Marcus

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