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Theater Review (DC): ‘The Lion King’ Tour Nears 5,000th Performance

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The Lion King Cast

The Lion King Cast. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

There’s a reason TV and movie studios are flocking to Broadway. Disney’s venerable stage version of The Lion King has grossed over $1 billion at the theatrical box office, and the touring production now at Washington, DC’s The Kennedy Center will celebrate its 5,000th performance on July 13th, at 1:30pm.

“The Kennedy Center is proud to be the home of the 5,000th touring performance of The Lion King,” stated Kennedy Center Vice President for Theater Programming Max Woodward. “We’re so happy to offer Washington audiences another opportunity to enjoy this exciting production and I encourage everyone to purchase their tickets soon while they are still available.”

The eyes of children both young and old lit up with excitement when the familiar opening of “Circle of Life” kicked things off. Tshidi Manye’s voice truly soars with power and grace, as the theater goes from dark to a riot of colors and sights as animals parade playfully through the audience. The Lion King truly is one of the coolest openings of any musical production you are likely to see. Since its Broadway premiere on November 13, 1997, 22 global productions have been seen by more than 70 million people and, cumulatively, run for a staggering 106 years. Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions (under the direction of Thomas Schumacher), The Lion King is only the second show in history to generate five productions worldwide running 10 or more years.

Do I really need to tell you the plot of The Lion King? OK, I’ll admit it, I didn’t see the movie until it came out on Blu-ray two years ago (gorgeous), so there are probably a couple of people in the world who haven’t experienced the majesty yet. It’s a typical coming-of-age story about growing up and becoming a man. This is more complicated when your name is Simba (Jelani Remy) and your father Mufasa (L. Steven Taylor) happens to be the ruler of an entire Kingdom. You have a lot to live up to. Of course trouble comes from jealous brother Scar (Patrick R. Brown). Also in the production are Tshidi Manye (Rafiki), Andrew Gorell (Zazu), Ben Lipitz (Pumbaa), Nick Cordileone (Timon) and Nia Holloway (Nala).

How do you recreate the beautiful landscapes and meticulously drawn animated characters from an animated film for a live action performance? With puppets. I’ll admit that I always avoided seeing this production because, in general, I’m not a particularly huge fan of watching live theater that features puppets. No, I haven’t seen Avenue Q.

War Horse was an example of where the technique works fairly well, primarily because they use very large puppet-horses that successfully hide the human element. Co-designed by Julie Taymor (who went on to do Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark), the puppets used for the primary characters in The Lion King were small, so it was hard for me to buy into the illusion that they were trying to recreate. Because I couldn’t get beyond the puppetry work, the musical lacked the same emotional punch to the gut that the movie had.

While the puppets didn’t quite work for me, I can’t fault the cast; for the most part they were spot-on. I especially liked Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz) who were exactly like in the film, though Timon’s design was a bit off-putting. But you can’t help but tap your toes and smile when they launch into a rousing rendition of “Hakuna Matata,” I swear that’s my philosophy. Jordan A. Hall’s version of “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” was a bit flat but he was energetic and the staging of the song was spectacular.

The book has been adapted by Roger Allers, who co-directed The Lion King animated feature, and Irene Mecchi, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay. Other members of the creative team include Michael Curry, who designed the masks and puppets with Taymor, Steve Canyon Kennedy (sound design), Michael Ward (hair and makeup design), John Stefaniuk (associate director), Marey Griffith (associate choreographer), Clement Ishmael (music supervisor) and Doc Zorthian (production supervisor). Anne Quart serves as associate producer.

The Lion King will be playing Washington, DC’s The Kennedy Center June 17 – August 17, 2014. This review was based on the June 21, 2014, 7:30 pm performance. Visit LionKing.com for ticket information and tour dates.

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About Michelle Alexandria