The Lion King

It's probably the pinnacle of musical theatre, and you'll be powerless to resist.
Rima Sabina Aouf
Published on December 16, 2013


People have been known to cry in the opening ten minutes of The Lion King, as the rapturous 'Circle of Life' brings throngs of hand-crafted, often life-size animal figures to the stage. The toughest nuts will at least get a few shivers, and somewhere near me, one susceptible person screamed.

It's a powerful reminder that spectacle isn't all superficial. See an awesome spectacle and your spirit swells; you feel alive and open to the world. That's got to be one of the big purposes of art, and it's there by the gallon in The Lion King.

Premiering in 1997, the musical has become Broadway's highest grossing and won a stack of Tony Awards. It's back in Sydney with an Australian cast, and the thing is unbelievable to witness — full of innovative spirit and super super high production values. It's probably the pinnacle of musical theatre, and you should count yourself powerless to resist.

The songs you remember by Elton John and Tim Rice from the 1994 cartoon are all there — 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight', 'Hakuna Matata', 'Be Prepared' — plus some lesser new additions. The highlights among these are beautiful, tribal instrumental numbers that accompany dance. The lowlight? The hyenas' 'Chow Down', which sounds like awkward Bon Jovi.

The story is realised through majestic and brilliantly creative puppetry, costume and stagecraft, most of it conceived by director, co-designer and sometime lyricist Julie Taymor. As well as the aforementioned opening, the scene in which young Simba gets trapped in a stampede of wildebeest pouring into a gorge is pure magic.

Are some of the performances dwarfed by all this pageantry? Indubitably. But more often than not they rise to meet it. Honourable mentions go to Cameron Goodall's committed clowning in the role of Zazu and to Kiwi newcomer Nick Afoa, playing adolescent Simba, whose big movement, voice and energy should be put to use on plenty more musical theatre stages. Buyi Zama, the only long-time Lion King-er, is next-level brilliant as the inimitable baboon Rafiki, while Josh Quong Tart does a delicious Scar — a perfect musical theatre villain if ever one was written.

I wished I knew some small child I could take along to this and introduce to the magic of live theatre. But in the absence of one, I'm sure I made a suitably wide-eyed observer (and actually, considering the near-total recall of the cartoon I can't help having after a '90s childhood, I'm probably the second-best target market). Don't be a cynic; go fight for your seat at Pride Rock.


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