Zahra Ndirangu, Contributing Writer
The show’s spiritual guide, Rafiki, opened “The Lion King” with her iconic cry at the start of “The Circle of Life,” as the landscape of the African savanna mesmerized the audience as elephants, giraffes and antelopes filled the theater.
The Broadway tour of Disney’s “The Lion King” takes the stage at the Altria Theater from March 3 to March 20. The Tony Award-winning musical is a theatrical retelling of the 1994 Disney film of the same title.
Children sang along to the theatrics of the film’s most well-known moments as songs and lines they already knew and loved thrilled them. Excited audience members spoke and sang along with the actors.
“The Lion King” mesmerizes and immerses its viewers. The set and lighting design transformed the Altria stage into the African savanna and the performers wear traditional clothing from varying African cultures. The actors gave brilliant performances that allowed audiences to connect with Simba’s story.
The show itself is massive with huge set pieces resembling the story’s setting, “Pride Rock” and the elephant graveyard. The musical has a cast of 54 actors. Despite this, the musical manages to feel intimate at the Altria Theater without sacrificing any elements of the show. This is also in spite of the fact that the Altria is larger than the show’s home at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway.
Moments felt just as dramatic and intense from the audience as they do in the movie. Scar’s, the show’s antagonist, musical number “Be Prepared” and the wildebeest stampede that leads to Mufasa’s death elicited vocal responses from audience members. The show utilizes a combination of silhouetted lighting and a large number of actors to make it seem as if the hyenas and wildebeests overwhelm the stage.
Gerald Ramsey gave a stellar performance as Mufasa. The role is renowned due to James Earl Jones’s vocal performance in the movie. He managed to call upon Jones’s performance as he uses a similar deep vocal tone and line delivery as Jones in the film, but he still made the character and Mufasa’s story his own.
Ramsey was born and raised in American Samoa and he said in an interview that he brings his cultural upbringing to Mufasa. He centers singing and dancing as a means of storytelling, something he said he learned from his roots as a Pacific Islander.
Mukelisiwe Goba brought both humor and heart to the character of Rafiki and was able to win over the audience despite a majority of her performance being in varying African languages, such as Zulu and Xhosa.
Rafiki serves as the spiritual guide in the show as she urges Simba to return to his roots. The change of Rafiki’s character to female in the musical adaptation was an idea of director Julie Taymor’s as she said the show needed more strong female characters, according to Taymor in an interview.
Julie Taymor helmed the original Broadway production and she sought to reimagine the film rather than produce a carbon copy, according to the director in an interview. Taymor achieved this by emphasizing African culture ingrained in the show, as the actors sing in native languages and wear traditional clothing and masks.
Taymor also designed the costumes for the show. She said in an interview she used elements like hand-beaded corsets for the lions inspired by the Maasai tribe of Kenya and Ghanaian kente cloth to compose Zazu’s costume to further highlight the African roots of the story.
The show utilizes African masking and puppetry techniques. The performers playing lions and lionesses wear these masks on their heads rather than over their faces, allowing the personality of the actors to shine through, according to Taymor in an interview.
Performers using puppets portray the other animals, like Zazu, Pumbaa and Timon, that also keep the actor visible to the audience. Other performers portraying the animals of Pride Rock use tactics, such as using stilts to become giraffes and crawling on all fours to portray hyenas.
The music of the show stands out as the heart of “The Lion King.” While the show has the classic songs from the movie, it adds songs in Swahili and Zulu taken from South African musician Lebo M’s concept album “Rhythm of the Pridelands.”
The traditional elements of the music are the heartbeat of the show. The percussionists sit, playing various instruments, like the djembe and the talking drum, in booths on either side of the stage and visible to the audience. The music brilliantly incorporates contemporary elements, like electric guitar in highly emotional moments, like the wildebeest stampede.
The show utilizes its cast off stage as well. In moments of dialogue, actors can be heard singing in the background. Actors sing their parts offstage in a booth equipped with microphones, a concept known as booth singing.
“The Lion King” dazzled its viewers. The musical cleverly reimagines the movie rather than retelling it, adding fresh elements for those who already love the show and breathing new life into Simba’s story.