The Lion King
QPAC Lyric Theatre
September 21 2014 – January 25 2015
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
The Lion King has been seen by over 75 million people AND has surpassed The Phantom of the Opera to become the highest grossing stage production OF ALL TIME. (December 12 marked my birthday AND the Australian company’s 400th performance!). And it really is THAT GOOD! If you haven’t booked your tickets for the end of the Brisbane season yet (The Lion King closes in Brisbane on January 25), stop reading right now and book seats for the whole family. Being a shamelessly special-event-lovin’, Tapis Rouge, VIP, Producers’ Seat kinda gal’ I recommend QPAC’s Producer Package, which includes a best-seat-in-the-house ticket, a souvenir program and complimentary drink for $195 ($175 for Wednesday matinees). But you know what? Beggers can’t be choosers and you’d better just take what you can get at this stage!
The vibe at a QPAC opening night is always fantastic, and having made mandalas at GOMA and enjoyed Circa’s matinee (and Max Brenner for dinner – oops…we love the White Choc Chai!), Poppy and I skipped into the foyer, very excited to finally be seeing for ourselves, Disney’s The Lion King.
In the foyer we saw the families of the kids who star in the show, and the children whose performances we’d miss, since we would be seeing Jayden Siemon as Young Simba and Jessica Jung-Yoon Kim as Young Nala. These two are excellent performers with delightful chemistry on stage, and it’s clear that Siemon already has the elusive star quality and genuine confidence to makes him stand out from the crowd, and which makes him a stand out in this production. Watch out for this little fella! He’s destined for big things!
We’ve seen the (1994) animated film a million times – it’s a family favourite – and Sam has shared many variations of the lines with Poppy (“It’s called Caboolture, Poppy. Never go there.”), so we knew what to expect. What’s so impressive about this production though, is that it surpasses expectations.
In 1999 Director, Julie Taymor, who conceptualised the show, spoke in depth with Richard Schechner.
If The Lion King hadn’t been a movie, there would be nothing like this. You’ve got children who know it. It’s like the Mahabharata for our culture. These kids have it memorized. And they love it, and they say, “Mommy”–I get these stories all the time–they say, “Don’t worry, Mommy. Simba’s going to be okay.”
With her spectacular original design, Julie Taymor discovered a way into the story that makes us appreciate the making of the magic we experience. It’s a rare treat to see a magician’s tricks revealed and it’s a joy to see the movement and facial expressions of each puppeteer, which are as important as the puppets they manipulate. I watch both the puppet and the puppet master, and this “double event” is what makes it so exciting to see characters like Timon (Jamie McGregor), Pumbaa (Russell Dykstra) and Zazu (Cameron Goodall) literally brought to life on stage. McGregor, Dykstra & Goodall are absolutely brilliant in their portrayals of some of the most colourful, comical characters in the show. These three could easily transfer to Broadway but we’ll keep them here thanks, if they’re willing to stay; they are the scene-stealers, every one, in the most entertaining and adorable way possible.
But it’s hard not to go past this Rafiki, and it’s not Buyi Zama, whom we’d expected to see, but her understudy, Gabisile Manana. I always have mixed feelings about seeing the understudy and in this case, I think it’s safe to say that I’m not sure I would have been any more impressed by Zama’s performance. I hope this role leads to the next step in Manana’s career because she’s an incredible comical performer, with a superb voice and striking stage presence, as well as the sensitivity to frame beautifully all of the lessons in The Lion King. He Lives in You is a highlight, largely too due to the strength of this ensemble. These are glorious performers to watch on stage.
It’s baffling and funky and somehow beautiful to see the Hyenas break it down before the end of the first act; it’s enough to give even the NYC firefighters a run for their money. I expect to see the (hyenas’) calendar at the merch desk after the show but alas, there’s nothing of the sort. (Poppy bought the kids beaded bracelets and gave one to a friend who probs won’t get to see the show. Love her heart).
Note to Disney Publicity: do the calendar.
Circle of Life is one of the most magnificent opening numbers I’ve ever experienced, even in its scaled-down touring size, with its Serengeti animals parading through the audience, its stirring music by Lebo M and Elton John (The Lion King showcases some of Elton John’s best ever compositions), and its healing, inspiring drum beat. This music moves me to tears even without any visuals. If ever Poppy notices she says, “Are you alright, Mum? I know. It’s okay.” and I’m never quite sure if she knows better than I what it is I’m feeling and why.
The ideograph for The Lion King was the circle. The circle of life. This symbol is the actual, most simple way of talking about The Lion King. It’s the biggest song. It’s obvious. So before Richard Hudson was hired [as set designer], I already was thinking about wheels and circles. And how whatever Pride Rock was I would never do the jutting Pride Rock from the movie. I knew it had to be abstract. You had the sun, then you had the first puppet I conceived, the Gazelle Wheel. The Gazelle Wheel represents the entire concept. You know what I’m talking about? The wheels with the gazelles that leap? With one person moving across the stage you get eight or nine leaping gazelles. Which is a miniature, too. So you get the long-shot and the close-up. I brought the miniature to Michael Eisner [of Disney] and I said, okay, in traditional puppet theatre, there is a black-masking or something that hides the wheels, and you see these little gazelles going like that. The puppeteer is hidden. But let’s just get rid of the masking. Because when you get rid of the masking, then even though the mechanics are apparent, the whole effect is more magical. And this is where theatre has a power over film and television. This is absolutely where its magic works. It’s not because it’s an illusion and we don’t know how it’s done. It’s because we know exactly how it’s done.
Julie Taymor: From Jaques Lecoq to The Lion King
Josh Quong Tart is superb as Scar. Having to step into any role voiced originally by Jeremy Irons is no mean feat but this performance is a masterclass in making one’s character one’s own. Interesting casting is another NIDA grad, Rob Collins, as Mufasa. He’s the gentlest Mufasa you might imagine, and it works, bringing a softer-stronger fatherly love to the story.
The production is very interesting when you think about race in America. For white people, The Lion King has nothing to do with race. It’s beyond race. It transcends race. For black people, it’s the opposite. It’s all about race.
SCHECHNER: How’s that?
TAYMOR: First of all, when you see the movie of The Lion King, unless you’re an adult you have no idea that the voice of Mufasa [James Earl Jones] is an African American. In my production you see the actors in flesh and blood. Technically, the entire chorus is nonwhite–some of them look white, but they are of mixed race. You have a nonwhite cast onstage for the most part. And for a black child–black papers have written about this–the response from the black audience has been rewarding and moving. In American mainstream theatre, a black king is nowhere to be found.
TAYMOR: Never! To have Mufasa played by a black actor. In the movie, Matthew Broderick was Simba’s voice. Okay, so we had a black father and a white son. Why didn’t they cast a black actor to do the voice of Simba? I didn’t intentionally have two light-skinned people playing those parts; they were the best actors for the roles. Our other Simba who’s playing it now is very black. The black audience sees race onstage. Now I know my work isn’t African, but Lebo’s music [Lebo M] is African.
The Lion King isn’t about racism the way, say, Ragtime or so many other plays with black performers are. In this regard, The Lion King is totally refreshing–a kind of glimpse of the future. My friend Reg E. Kathay said, “This is like the next century.” But no one in the white press ever talks about the race issue in The Lion King. I think one article in L.A. brought that up.
Julie Taymor: From Jaques Lecoq to The Lion King
Don’t skimp and skip taking the kids to experience The Lion King; you’ll never forgive yourself (and you’ll never hear the end of it!). This is the best and brightest of the fun and meaningful family musicals. Get online and get those tix in time to put an IOU in the Christmas stockings tonight!