After more than 20 years of success in Broadway and across the globe, The Lion King has finally pounced its way to Manila. The entire kingdom of Pride Lands is making a visit to the stage of The Theatre at Solaire and they pledged to let the audience feel the love more than just one night. I saw the show this week and I simply cannot wait to share how awesome my experience was.
If you paid close attention to your English literature professor, you might think that the story of a prince banished by his greedy and murderous uncle after the death of his father is not unique at all. The story of The Lion King was inspired by no less than the great Bard himself, making the elements of the plot universal. Simba’s chronicle mirrors that of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. Hamlet is a famous Shakespearean play which follows the story of a prince and his quest to avenge the death of his father. His indecisiveness and impulsiveness brought tragedy to a great number of characters in the play.
In the story, Simba took what Professor Joseph Campbell would call The Hero’s Journey. Campbell studied the pattern of every hero’s journey in mythology. Just like how Odysseus learned important lessons along his trip back to the Island of Ithaca, so did Simba when he decided to return to the Pride Lands. With the help of a meerkat, a warthog, and a prophetic mandrill, Simba found his way back to the throne he rightfully owns.
The stage version of The Lion King twisted some elements of the plot of the animated film. There are parts of the story which made my eyebrow rise only because I know it is not part of the original material. For example, the attempt of Scar (Antony Lawrence) to marry Nala (Noxolo Dlamini) is a unique portion that I do not necessarily expect to see. But I have to say that the alteration of the story helped to draw the line which creatively separates the animated film from the stage musical.
In an interview, The Lion King composer Lebo M boasted the authenticity of the first international tour of the musical, featuring the most number of South African actors who share the stage to deliver an award-winning performance to Filipino crowd. It is an initial impression that the show was created for the delight of kids who grew up watching singing animals. But after seeing it live, it became easier for me to see why The Lion King is dubbed as the number one musical in the world.
My experience of watching Disney’s landmark musical event did not start well. I was 10 minutes late which means I missed the headliner and practically the highlight of the show—Circle of Life. I know theatre waits for no one and being late is the last thing it will tolerate, but I have the rush hour traffic to blame. After finding my seat inside a dimmed theatre, I needed to let a few scenes pass before completely grasping the idea of how massive a thing I just missed. Since Circle of Life is one of the most famous numbers of the show, my only consolation is knowing that I can access all sorts of videos of it online (there’s even a 360-degree experience available on Youtube).
A Breathing African Savanna
Missing a few minutes of the show did not rob the over-all appeal and spectacle of it. The set design is a celebration of the South African culture, teeming with colour and puppetry. The Lion King not only brought the African savanna onto the Solaire stage but it also painted a breathing version of it. The excellent use of patterns and mechanical puppets invites the audience to the remote dimension of imagination. This is perhaps what Tony Award-winning director Julie Taymor meant when she said the show does not provide everything: It accomplishes half of the picture and let the imagination of the audience do the rest.
Taymor’s influence to the show is particularly visible in the costumes of the actors. Her Tony-winning creation which she calls the ‘double event’, awakens the childhood illusion that everyone of us has somewhere inside our head. ‘Double event’ is a technique employed by Taymour to deliberately let the image of the human actor get lost in the animal costume he is wearing or the puppet he is controlling. I believe this theatrical gimmick is a good way to remind us about the deep link humans have with other creatures like plants and beasts. It is like exploring the complexity of human emotion inside the beautiful shapes of animals. My personal favourite puppets include that of Sazu, Pumbaa, and Timon.
With their intricate pieces of wardrobe, I can only imagine how rigorous the rehearsal of the show must had been. The movements of the actors are very faithful to the scenes of the story. I remember one part of the show where Young Simba (Julien Joshua Dolor Jr) was in deep conversation with his father Mufasa (Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile), and instead of looking and talking to the human actor, Young Simba was actually addressing the headpiece of the character. Small details like this make a good piece of performing art.
We all grew up hearing iconic songs like ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’, ‘Hakuna Matata’, and ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’. The beautiful music, which was composed and written by Elton John, Lebo M, and Tim Rice, saw the 1994 classic Disney animated film bagging an Oscar. For me, the best musical pieces of the stage version are those which are not necessarily intelligible for an average audience member (unless the person understands the South African language). Chants like the ‘The Lioness Hunt’ and ‘One by One’ have transported me to a festive tribal celebration. You know the magic of music is at work when your consciousness leaves your body even without understanding the lyrics of the song. Music is a universal language and The Lion King is successful in proving just that.
‘Mane-raising’ Ensemble of Talents
If Phantom of the Opera has a falling chandelier and Miss Saigon has a landing helicopter, The Lion King awes its audience with an erecting Pride Rock right at the centre of the stage. Once Rafiki (Ntsepa Pitjeng) ascended, it is an utter goosebump all the way. Manila is privileged to have been visited by a cast full of exceptional talent and humorous wit. Pierre van Heerden (Pumbaa) and Jamie McGregor (Timon) both deserved a standing ovation (which they did get at the end of the show). The comical duo of the story was given a fresh identity with punch lines that every Filipino audience member can relate to. They crack jokes which incorporate so much of the Pinoy culture and they even speak Tagalog words in some parts of the show, sending the audience to loud gales of laughter. When I heard Zazu (André Jewson) lamenting about a curtain that looks like a purchase from a Robinson [Mall], I can’t help but laugh hard enough to annoy the person sitting next to me. Humour will preserve the freshness of the show because I’d like to think that the punch lines are different every single night. A unique experience for every performance is a symptom of a good theatre.
Calvyn Grandling is leading the cast as Simba but his understudy, Felipe Flores, played the role in the show I saw. Flores’ amazing voice is the first thing anyone would notice upon his entry on the stage. He bears the trademark of all successful Disney prince charming: romantic voice and remarkable debonair. Meanwhile, Noxolo Dlamini (Nala) gave the audience a good run for their money with her graceful moves and tough physique. The notable aspect of Nala’s character is the balance of femininity and warrior-like attitude, with her mission to bring Simba back to the Pridelands. Dlamini rendered a good performance as if she originated the role since the conception of the show more than two decades ago.
It is with great significance to also mention the great performance of two young Filipino artists who are making their country proud as they take on their roles. Julien Joshua Dolor (Young Simba) and Uma Naomi Martin (Young Nala) are two of the cutest cubs to ever grace the stage of The Lion King. They did not only satisfy the complex emotional demand of their characters but proved how much promising the future of the Filipino theatre is. Dolor and Martin alternate the roles with fellow Pinoy actors Felicity Kyle Napuli, Sheena Bentoy, Gabriel Tiongson, and Omar Sharief Uddin.
The Lion King is an amazing theatrical experience that any person of any age should not fail to watch. I missed the opening number. Please do not make the huge mistake of missing the whole thing. Book your tickets at ticketworld.com.ph.
(I added more pictures of my stage door-ing experience below)
*Note: All the production photos featured in this article are from my personal souvenir programme. In compliance to the policy of The Theatre at Solaire, I did not take any pictures during the show.