Newest Review: ... looked like a baby lioness surrounded by grown lionesses, full of grace and elegance. The music of the Lion King is obviously well-known... more
King of the Stage
Member Name: Puggers
Date: 07/07/09, updated on 07/07/09 (116 review reads)
Advantages: Stunning, ingenious costumes and visuals, classic musical numbers well-performed.
Disadvantages: New songs and scenes are noticeably weaker.
A stage performer is doubtless expected to be pretty versatile, and to be able to inhabit a variety of roles - nonetheless, the challenge facing the producers of the Lion King musical - of bringing the whole of the African Savannah convincingly to the stage - must have been a daunting one. If the prospect of bringing together a cast of anthropomorphic Lions, Hyenas, Elephants, Giraffes and the like is one you struggle to visualise, you should try to avoid seeing anything of the show before going, as the first scene is a spectacle like little else in theatre.
To the famous strains of The Circle of Life, the potential of the set design is immediately realised as a half-moon panel in the floor slides open and, with the centre of the stage rotating, Pride Rock rises up until it stands tall over the gathering creatures below. Each new arrival seems more impressive and creatively designed than the last, from the soaring birds swooping low over the audience in the stalls and the multitudes of gazelle, through to the elephant that arrives (it would spoil the surprise to reveal how) to the kind of cacophonous applause that normally meets the climax of a show. The audience on their feet, clapping and whooping filling the theatre - and this only a couple of minutes in.
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The stage adaption is a largely very faithful adaptation of the Oscar-winning Disney animation, featuring the same characters, songs and plot. The particular idiosyncrasies and styles of the original actors are also carried through here; the performer playing Zazu sounds very much like Rowan Atkinson, stage-Scar does a more than passable Jeremy Irons, and so forth. There are a couple of additional scenes and a handful of extra songs that do not feature in the film, but for the most part, this is a smooth transition from screen to stage.
The Lion King, of course, is a Hamlet-esque tale of destiny and redemption, in which Simba, a young lion born into power and privilege must come to terms with the responsibility that comes with his position in the aftermath of a tragedy which tears his family apart. Of course, being Disney, it's a lot more light-hearted than that - our protagonist's path is lined with larger-than-life characters and ridiculously catchy songs. There were also signs of the dual-focus humour - jokes that make both children and adults laugh, sometimes for different reasons - which have since become commonplace in animations. This is expanded on a little in the stage version, capitalising on the chance to play off a live audience.
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The Lyceum Theatre, home of the show since its opening in 1999, is an impressive, comfortable venue in which to take in the spectacle of the Lion King. The audience is split between the stalls and the grand circle (plus a few boxes), with each having its advantages. Sitting at the lower level, the audience are more involved in the show; on occasions the creatures interact a little with the crowd, or enter from unexpected positions. From the higher viewpoint, however, one gets a fantastic view of the stage, and a better impression of the ingenuity of the set design, able to see each and every part working in unison.
This is an enormously impressive aspect of the show; looking at the bare stage, one would not expect it to be capable of hiding so many platforms, sliding sections and openings. Even were you made aware in advance of the existence of each part, it is unlikely you'd anticipate how skilfully they'd be utilised to bring the rich locations of the Savannah to life. Having seen the film, one might wonder how some scenes could possibly be brought to the stage - the stampede in the gorge being perhaps the best example of this - and it's a joy and a marvel to see the production pull off these feats.
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Verses and Visuals
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As impressive as the set is, it's the cast, in their various animal-guises, that make the first and the greatest impact. The challenge of bringing the creatures convincingly to the stage is met via a combination of life-sized puppets, shadow-puppetry, computer animation and some wonderful costumes which incorporate the actor into the animal.
Much of the pleasure is in seeing the performer for the first time, trying to work out where human ends and animal begins, so I'll give only the one illustration. Pumba, the warthog, is one of the most impressive creations, with the actor standing inside the animal, just behind the head, so that his legs are Pumba's front legs, his arms controlling the head and tongue; the creature's rear dangling behind.
Alongside the look of the costumes, there are also some neat touches that enable the actor to capture the "feel" and nature of the animal they are portraying. Scar, for example, a weak, rather piteous figure - born, he says, with the brain not the brawn of the family - is equipped with a hinged head that can be lowered to give a slumped, cowering posture, conveying something of the character's personality.
Musically, it probably isn't a surprise that the show is exemplary; the well-known songs are done considerable justice here, with spot-on vocals and some clever choreography combining to great effect. The young actor portraying Simba as a cub turns in a particularly exuberant, uplifting performance in I Just Can't Wait to be King - a song which, realised on stage, departs slightly from its film-roots in terms of visual interpretation, and does so for the better.
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As much as the songs are a great strength of The Lion King, the only real weaknesses of the production are the new efforts. A combination of new material and Elton John/Tim Rice numbers that didn't make the cut for the film, they almost uniformly lack the magic and energy of original songs, and don't fit nearly as neatly into events. Where the classic songs seem to complement the action, and feel like a logical progression of the story, most of the new numbers fit in rather awkwardly, and seem to serve limited function but to extend the show's running time.
This is true not only of the new songs. There are also several scenes added in which contribute little more - as with the musical introductions, there's nothing especially wrong with any of them, but they have been inserted a little crudely, and don't flow quite as smoothly as those parts familiar from the film.
These are though, only very minor quibbles - even those bits that could be construed as negatives here are only so by comparison with the wondrous heights the show otherwise reaches. One of the best films of the 90s has become of the most outstanding stage productions of the following decade; visually astounding and extravagant, musically joyous and quite brilliant, The Lion King should appeal to all; if you love the film, you'll delight in seeing it realised on stage - if you weren't touched by the original, you'll nonetheless be enthralled by an outstanding standalone musical. Ten years after opening, The Lion King is likely to reign for some time yet.
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Prices range from £30-£60, with cheaper and more expensive seats available in both the Stalls and the Grand Circle. Matinee shows are held on Saturdays at 14:00.
Summary: One of Disney's great films is just as stunning on stage.
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