It’s hard not to describe the production of The Lion King running until July 12 without mentioning the elephant in the room. Two elephants, actually, who lumber down the aisles of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre at the beginning of the show with the help of puppeteers hidden inside.
The procession of pachyderms is but one example of the ingeniously engineered wildlife costumes that have helped the musical, created in 1997 and based on the animated Disney classic, become the first Broadway show in history to earn more than a billion dollars at the box office. And it lives up to the hype right from the opening number, with impressionistic gazelles and jungle cats leaping through the air, birds flying overhead and giraffes serenely strolling the savannah to the Oscar-nominated Circle of Life, sung beautifully by wise old baboon Rafiki (Tshidi Manye). It’s a veritable feast for the senses, which is fitting given Circle of Life concerns, in a roundabout way, animals feasting on each other.
The Lion King looks great and it sounds great. The idea for avant-garde director Julie Taymor’s famous lion masks perched above the actors' heads came out of Africa itself, while Japanese Bunraku theatre inspired the wondrous puppetry fusing performers with wildlife. Many of Elton John and Time Rice’s cheesier tunes from the cartoon come off much better with a live orchestra, African chanting and ululations, while the sets, special effects and choreography are all stunning. Audience members are, in particular, unlikely to ever forget the moment when the face the murdered Mustafa forms itself into a giant mask to communicate with Simba from beyond the grave.
But there’s no getting around the fact the plot, essentially the coming of age tale of a cub with daddy issues, is a bit on the silly side, and the Disneyfication of the Dark Continent might seem spread a bit thick for anyone who caught the recent production of The Book of Mormon in the same theatre.
You probably know the Hamlet-lite story. The villainous Scar (Patrick R. Brown channeling Jeremy Irons, unexplained British accent and all) plots the murder of his noble brother King Mustafa (L. Steven Taylor) and his nephew Simba, the heir apparent (portrayed by accomplished newcomer Tre Jones). Lions fall in love: grown up Simba (an energetic Jelani Remy) falls for Nala (a suitably feline Nia Holloway). Comic relief is provided by the duo of meercat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and warthog Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), while Zazu the officious hornbill (Drew Hirshfield) flutters and wisecracks his way throughout the show. It is often quite funny – the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” pops up to good effect, although using it ended up costing Disney dearly in a subsequent copyright lawsuit – but there are a few too many fart jokes for my taste and some of the dialogue is truly groan-worthy. Name-dropping Value Village, for example, just seems like pandering to the crowd rather than make any sense in a story about talking animals embroiled in an African civil war.
But it’s obvious why this family-friendly musical is the biggest earner in history and, like the problem-free philosophy of Hakuna Matata itself, ain’t no passing craze. In terms of pure spectacle, there’s simply nothing else like it.