Stage version of THE LION KING majestic as ever

Even with a new computer animated version of THE LION KING now out in movie theaters, Clevelanders are still loving the beautiful stage rendition of the Disney classic. Playing now through September 1, 2019 on the KeyBank State Theatre stage at Playhouse Square, THE LION KING remains royalty here in Northeastern Ohio.

Spencer Plachy as Scar in THE LION KING North American Tour.
Photo Credit Deen van Meer.

Back in 1994, THE LION KING was originally released as the 32nd Disney animated feature film. In this version, audiences first meet lion pride leader Mufasa (famously voiced by actor James Earl Jones), his Queen Sarabi, and their precocious lion cub, Simba (younger version voiced by Jonathon Taylor Thomas, and the older version by Matthew Broderick). Along with these characters, baboon Rafiki, best friend Nala, hornbill Zazu, meerkat Timon, and warthog Pumbaa fight against Mufasa’s conniving brother, Scar, and Scar’s hyena minions.

Buyi Zama as Rafiki in THE LION KING North American Tour.
Photo Credit Deen van Meer.

Like the animated film, the stage version translates the Hamlet-esque story of Scar’s jealousy, and his takeover of the Pride Lands of Africa, and breathes powerful life into Simba’s struggle to find himself and restore his family to power amid tragedy.

The high-energy production is filled with the beauty of stunning costumes, realistic animal puppetry, and breathtaking set pieces. The highlight is the artistry of the puppets and the phenomenal articulation of them by the masterful cast. The parade of animals at the beginning is truly overwhelming with life-sized elephants, giraffes, antelope, birds and more. It would be easy to see that something like this could feel cheesy if done wrong, but instead the remarkable craftsmanship and performance makes it magical and awe-inspiring for all ages.

Nia Holloway as Nala and Jared Dixon as “Simba” in THE LION KING North American Tour. Photo Credit Deen van Meer.

Adding to the production whimsy is the “human scenery,” as cast members are painted and dressed in lush leaves and other natural phenomena throughout the show, moving and weaving throughout the performance in a continuous round of ambiance. Birds, fish, and fireflies dance through plant life, rivers and forests as if it is real… yet mystical.

Amid the story, songs, and dance, there is a hefty helping of humor. With references to the main curtain being from Target, characters wanting to eat a wildebeest with some “Cleveland hot sauce,” Zazu’s jail rendition of “Let it Go” from the musical FROZEN, and even a nod to Angry Birds, there are many ‘haha’ moments to balance the mood in ths delightful Disney piece.

Lionesses Dance in THE LION KING North American Tour.
Photo Credit Deen van Meer.

The dancing and choreography in the production are phenomenal, with the cast always moving. Deliberate articulations are executed with strength and poise, as the characters display a range of everything from active stillness, to perfect precision in large dance numbers. Everyone from the second tree on the left to Mufasa is engaged in a way that keeps the audience entranced throughout.

The acting and vocals are icing on the cake of the catchy score, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. The cast breathes life into the words, with book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi.

Spencer Plachy’s Scar is dark, brooding and bitter – even at the curtain call. Gerald Ramsey is a powerful Mufasa, full of knowledge and wisdom. Buyi Zama is an entertaining and playful Rafiki, with vocals that punch through to the audience with joy and zest. Jared Dixon’s grown-up Simba is eager and full of life. Nia Holloway’s grown-up Nala is strong and determined. The children do a nice job as well, as the younger versions of Simba and Nala.

Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa in THE LION KING North American Tour.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Nick Cordileone’s Timon and William John Austin’s Pumbaa are a team of wise-crackers (although a bit underwhelming), and the “bad guy” hyena trio of Banzai, Shenzi and Ed add a level of chaos to the unfolding story. However, the standout performer in the mix is Greg Jackson as Zazu – his grandiose movements, clown-like facial expressions, and skillful articulation of the bird puppet are the height of entertainment for many scenes.

The company in general is a well-oiled wheel – the “Circle of Life” that creates the stunning stage spectacle. With exciting renditions of songs like “They Live in You,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” “Hakuna Matata,” and “Shadowland,” the talent roars with life.

Hats off to the orchestra for an engaging performance, and to the designers for creating the stunning sets of the Pride Lands, as well as the dark corners of places like an elephant grave yard. The lights, sound, and costumes truly transport the audience to fantastic places.

THE LION KING plays now through September 1, 2019 on the KeyBank State Theatre stage at Playhouse Square. Tickets range from $49 – $199 and can be purchased by calling 216-241-6000, or visiting www.playhousesquare.org.

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