Feel the love at THE LION KING

The cast of THE LION KING
The cast of THE LION KING

The savannah has come to the San Diego Civic Theatre, with Disney’s THE LION KING bringing Pride Rock and its colorful cast of characters with it.

It’s hard to believe that this show would be old enough to vote if it were a person.  At 18 years old this juggernaut musical has shown no signs of slowing or aging as it tours the globe bringing Simba’s story to the people.

While the story is true to the movie (and if you don’t know this movie then let me be the first to say “welcome to the planet, and after this let’s listen to a little show called HAMILTON”) this show is no cartoon, it is a sumptuous visual banquet.  The colors, the movement, puppetry, and the costuming, all give this show a unique and stylized look make this a stunning visual tapestry.

The color palette of the show is rich in saturated colors that evoke both the mood of the scene, and sense of being out in the open outside. Most striking is the way that the actors, the sets and the lighting interplay. It can go from a single person on the stage and seem practically alone in the universe, to a stage full of stampeding wildebeests.  The use of silhouettes, shadow puppets, against these giant screens and pieces is very effective.

The movement here is also highlighted with the sets and the scenery, as the actors have to walk a delicate line of telling the story while not being hindered or overtaken by their animal costume.  The masks are based on African masks that are meant to be worn over the head instead of over the face.  This allows the actor to both embody the character while still being able to emote and project all of the feelings that the character is feeling. The movements are also very stylized and yet clearly of the animal that they are portraying.  The cats bend and arch their back, or the antelopes leap, but not with the lines of a ballet dancer, but with bent knees to copy the position of the animal in the air.

Particularly striking is a piece where the lionesses stalk their prey, as they both hunt for the pride and teach young Nala (the delightfully charismatic Meilani Cisneros) what to do.

As Young Simba, BJ Covington is full of bravado and swagger, especially as he tries to copy his father, or when he tries to strike defensive poses against the hyenas.  When his dad, Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa, tries to show him how to grow into the lion he will one day be, it is both a sweet moment between father and son, but also a lesson in being a king predator as he realizes what big shoes (paws?) he has to fill.

Much has been said about the puppets in this show and with good reason, but that goes hand in hand with the costuming.  In many cases the actors are inside the puppets, as they are transformed into leaping antelopes, giraffes, zebras, and more.  The use of Bunraku puppetry, where the puppeteer is visible to the audience, is very effective and allows for the audience to both take in the actors performance, while also seeing the puppet as it interacts with the other characters.  Drew Hirshfield as Zazu is especially skilled at this balance with his delightful performance of thishornbill courtier.  As with all theatre, and Disney shows, the audience supplies the final touch of imagination that can push this puppetry over the edge and merge into seeing just the character a whole instead of a sum of its parts.

From the first minute of the opening song, as the audience comes face to face with the entre scene you can hear the audience gasp.  Between the amazing vocals and the puppetry this is an amazing way to kick off a show. No matter if the audience knows what was coming or not, it is an impressive sight as elephants, rhinos, and more parade their way to pay homage to the new born lion, and with them comes a promise of amazement and promise for the rest of the show.

Sadly, this is a promise that the show cannot entirely keep.  While the show is true to the movie, there are moments that can get lost.  Everyone’s favorite sidekicks, Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog have one of the best known songs in the movie “Hakuna Matata” seems to lose some of its sparkle and energy here. In the second act, it’s when the show dips into sentimentality, particularly with the romantic “Can You Feel the Love tonight,” that the show loses some of its momentum.

This is simultaneously a show on the cosmic scale of life, death, and metamorphosis as well as a specific story about family, love, and friendship….as told by predators.  So the hint of darkness is always there, which it needs as it keeps it from being cotton candy sweet.

This show is one that is particularly impactful for kids.  It’s a story they know, but with all of these magical and creative theatre elements, it is one that captures their imaginations from the start.  The kids in the row next to me were transfixed and as they waved to the performers in the aisles, and the performers waved back, you could see their interest and engagement go all the way up to eleven.

One could say that this show is the perfect example of “A Circle of Life”, every generation is introduced to this movie at some point in their childhood now and so the adults can experience the wonder of bringing this show to their kids and in 20 years from now, those kids will bring their kids.

THE LION KING is playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre until October 2nd.  For show times and ticket availability go to www.Broadwaysd.com

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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