The Lion King The Musical has arrived at The Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh for what by Scottish theatre terms is a very long run (Thu 05 Dec to Sun 29 Mar), and as this is the only Scottish venue on this current tour, tickets are already selling fast as audiences obviously do not want to miss this show.
The Lion King The Musical stage show is of course based on the 1994 Walt Disney Animation Studios' film. As a production, this show is massive by whatever means you can measure a show, and since its first performance in 1997, this stage show has simply become a global phenomenon with over 100 million people seeing the show to date.
Do any of the many impressive figures that can be attributed to this show matter in the end though, does the show actually work beyond the marketing hype? These are some of the questions that I hoped to find answers to tonight as I have not yet seen the stage show (I missed it last time it came to The Playhouse Theatre), and I am also one of the few people who has not seen the original film, just so many clips from it that I somehow feel that I have seen it. This review is therefore based solely on this stage show as I am not carrying over any sentiments from the much loved animated film.
The most obvious thing about this show is evident right from the opening moments…this is not simply a musical, but a theatrical stage experience, and the imagination and creativity that has gone into bringing animated cartoon characters to new life on stage is impressive with 232 puppets used in each performance and 6 African languages are spoken or sung in the show. This very creative approach to bringing not only the animals of the African continent to life, but also its very sounds and landscape is in itself a powerful statement to how Disney wanted to approach this stage show. If any company could have turned the Lion King into a multi-screen, multi-visual experience of technical wizardry, then it is Disney, but that approach was not taken, and here we have an experience as an audience which only theatre can create.
Bringing this show to life on stage of course brings with it some problems which just will not go away. One of those problems is the requirement to give human emotions to animals, but this is for the most part overcome by the use of highly creative costumes and masks, plus some very “animal” movements from our cast. Our animal cast also tread a fine line at times between trying to achieve realism whilst at the same time being authentic to the original much loved animated film. Perhaps the biggest problem that will not go away though is the sheer savagery of the daily fight for survival in the animal kingdom, and that level of violence is at odds with some of the very core values of Disney as a company. Surprisingly, this aspect of nature is there, but dealt with in style. What of our human cast though? Well, as you would expect, no one is getting near this stage as a performer unless they are very good as what they do, and everyone involved is on stage because they have the talent to be there.
This show is really one of two halves, the story of Simba the lion cub, and the young and strong now adult Simba ready to reclaim his lost heritage, and holding everything together is music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice (plus some additional music not by them). The two main songs from this show, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Circle of Life” have already been massive hit songs, and the latter is the theme that holds this story cycle of eternal renewal together.
With a show like this one, there is always going to be an element of the show being bigger than any cast member, but all of our main cast give strong performances here and the dynamics between young Simba and Nala are good and lead us well into the second half relationship dynamics of their older selves, and Dashaun Young (Simba) and Josslynn Hlenti (Nala) as adults give very good performances that bring you right back into a story line that at times can meander a little off course.
By its nature of being called “The Lion King”, we are dealing with much of the focus being on the male lions and as a story development this can be limiting, particularly as the story could be viewed by some as the Biblical brothers, Cain and Abel, transferred to the animal world. Here Jean-Luc Guizonne makes a regal and wise Mufasa and a fine counter-balance to his scheming brother Scar (Richard Hurst). Oddly though, Scar seems to lose much of his cunning in Act 2. I have to admit a strong liking for Scar as a character over Mufasa here simply because the role allows Richard Hurst to give us a very vaudevillian villain on stage here. Thandazile Soni as our female Mandrill narrator Rafiki does a good job of linking all our story lines together and humour is more than well provided by Matthew Forbes as Zazu the hornbill. There is an interesting performance too from Steve Beirnaert (Timon the Meercat) and Carl Sanderson (Pumbaa, the very colourful warthog). Our many Hyenas can get a little annoying at times though, but they are meant to.
Despite all of the huge plus points for this show, it is though still not a perfect show for me as I left feeling that something was missing here. To be honest I am not sure what, but perhaps a big part of that was the very basic story and plot line. Perhaps some of it was that to be expected sugary coated topping that Disney can do so well. The one thing I would like to have seen though is some slight updating to this show to highlight the many environmental changes in the African continent since this show was first produced and the massive decline these changes have had in wildlife populations. Sadly, many of the young children that this show is aimed at will grow up in a world that simply will not have many of these wonderful animals, birds, and other wildlife in their natural habits. Here, Disney have for me missed a massive opportunity to highlight these issues to a young and global audience.
It is not too often that we get a show of this size and scale coming to Edinburgh, but when it does you have to stop for a moment and realise that there are actually two productions going on here. One is the show that you are sitting and watching, and the other is the always unseen, but equally as massive, behind the scenes production of the theatre, in this case The Playhouse Theatre, and the many staff who have worked with the production company over a long period of time to help make all of this possible. Also, when a show like “The Lion King” comes to town, its economic value and impact is spread well beyond the theatre itself and sometimes we too easily forget how important theatres are not only as part of the cultural fabric but also the economic one.
Review by Tom King