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Disney’s The Lion King debuted on Broadway in 1997, three years after its animated film of the same name. It’s still running on Broadway (with 10,000+ performances) and in the West End (7,500+ performances). It’s been touring continuously since 2002, with the exception of a few months in 2017 and the “pandemic pause” of 2020 to 2021. But despite loving the animated film (which I’ve seen a few dozen times over the last three decades), I had never seen the musical before I walked into the Academy of Music last week for the opening night Rafiki Tour production of The Lion King. I truly didn’t know what to expect.
The first Broadway musical I truly fell in love with was The Phantom of the Opera, so I’m certainly not immune to big, flashy productions, but I’m also familiar with enough style-over-substance shows to have grown cynical about big-budget, concept-heavy productions like The Lion King.
But because of my love for the film, I was open to enjoying the show. I knew the story (Hamlet with animals). I knew there were puppets in the stage version. And I noticed that the Academy of Music ushers were extremely adamant about keeping the aisles clear before the lights went down. I settled in to discover the rest.
When the lights went up, it took me approximately 27 seconds to decide I was all in. Every bit of skepticism that I might still have been harboring disappeared the second I looked to my right and saw a goddamn rhinoceros trundling down the aisle of the theater during “Circle of Life.” It was a puppet, obviously—but it was magic all the same.
Singers in the wild
In case there are others out there who are still new to the show after more than 25 years, I won’t spoil anything. But I will say that spectacle aside, this is very much a show that can be made or broken by its cast. This tour’s performances are excellent across the board, starting with the very first voice we hear: Gugwana Dlamini—who has also been in The Lion King’s UK touring production, as well as a production in Singapore—as Rafiki. This role is the one that’s probably changed the most from the original movie to the musical: she serves sometimes as spiritual guide and sometimes as event catalyst, and while she is not in every moment of the show, every moment she is in is truly wonderful.
At the Thursday, August 17, performance, Young Simba (Mason Lawson) had all the charisma a young king-to-be demands, equally matched by the gravitas of Gerald Ramsey as his father, Mufasa. Young Nala (Aniya Simone) was a perfect foil for the prince and carried quite a bit of stage presence for such a young actor. Darian Sanders as Simba and Khalifa White as Nala (Syndee Winters will take on this role for the rest of the engagement) played off each other beautifully, and Peter Hargrave as Scar was pitch-perfect as the usurping uncle. (His “Be Prepared” was one of my favorite numbers of the show.)
But for me, the real standouts among the named characters were Zazu (Drew Hirshfield), Timon (Nick Cordileone), and Pumbaa (John E. Brady, who played not just Pumbaa but also Timon and Zazu on Broadway). Funny that in a production full of players who emulate the real movements and mannerisms of wild animals, the three most cartoonish characters would be the ones who stood out, but their performances actually heightened the effectiveness of the other animals’ portrayals. If they had been too realistically a hornbill, a meerkat, and a warthog, or if the other animals had been too cartoonish, I don’t think the production would work.
Fortunately, it does. And now you’ll have to go see the spectacle for yourself.
What, When, Where
The Lion King. Music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, with additional music and lyrics by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer; directed by Taymor, with choreography by Garth Fagan. $29-$169. Through September 10, 2023, at the Academy of Music, 240 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.
The Academy of Music has wheelchair-accessible entrances, seating, and restrooms. Assistive listening devices are available upon request.
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