The following review is based on the Saturday, February 4th evening performance when the role of Young Simba was played by Jaylen Lyndon Hunter and Young Nala was played by Scarlett London Diviney. These roles are shared with Jordan Pendleton and Farrah Wilson, respectively. Additionally, Rafiki was portrayed by Gugwana Dlamini, who will continue in this role through February 19th. From February 21st until the end of the Pantages Theatre run on March 26th, the role of Rafiki will be played by Mukelisiwe Goba.
The North American touring production of Disney’s The Lion King is back at the Pantages for a nearly two-month run through March 26th, and it’s easy to see why it has been a Broadway and international musical juggernaut since 1997. Certainly, there are ample reasons for why it continues to be such a special attraction after having already played to more than 112 million audience members — grossing more than $1 Billion — and winning 70-plus prestigious theatre awards. The Lion King not only serves to impart important messages about the sanctity and interconnectedness of all life forms, but it does so with an artistic panache that is largely unmatched in live theatre.
Opening night on Saturday, February 4th also reminded that the Hamlet-esque Lion King, written by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, is as much a win for the behind-the-scenes personnel as it is for the onstage performers who maximize the visual impact of their breathtaking costumes, which have been designed by the production’s director, Julie Taymor. Uniquely conceived animalistic garb, in tandem with the masks and prodigious puppetry by Taymor and Michael Curry, along with stunning hair and makeup by Michael Ward, have lent much credence to a duality expressed by the individual human performers and their jungle-dwelling avatars.
We can’t help but enchantedly observe the actors themselves, as well as the characters they’re portraying, which are presented to the audience with purposefully beast-like movements, swaying bodies, and sharp head turns — a testament to choreographer Garth Fagan. Not to mention, Richard Hudson’s scenic design and Donald Holder’s lighting blend to create fantastic views of myriad grasslands, clouds, stars, cliffs, the rising sun, geysers bursting from the ground, an ominous elephant graveyard, and a wildebeest stampede that intensely caters to our depth-perceptive imaginations.
Of course, it’s not a musical without the melodies and lyrics — primarily by Elton John and Tim Rice — which are as ensconced in the public consciousness now as they were when the animated film was released in 1994. “Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and more, have an almost spiritual effect on the observer, amplified by percussionists surrounding the proscenium, guiding us on the coming-of-age journey of the naïve but courageous cub, Simba, who goes against the wishes of his wise and benevolent father, King Mufasa. The premise is urged forward when Simba leaves the safe perimeter of the Pride Lands, lured by his power-hungry and manipulative uncle, Scar (Mufasa’s brother). The nefarious Scar, whose aims are buttressed by equally amoral hyenas, threatens to upset the balance of the realm, while the separated and growing Simba must come to terms with whether he will return to Pride Rock and claim his rightful place as king.
The diverse cast deserves endless acclaim for what they accomplish from the very first scene when they come through the aisles of the Pantages, puppeteering antelopes, giraffes (on stilts), a gargantuan elephant, birds (via poles connected to strings), and rhinos. Seeing the actors, additionally, tell worthwhile little narratives with shadow puppetry, “become” shrubs and blossoming plants, and be adorned in flowing and colorful garb — as they sing about Africa’s splendor before it gives way to Scar’s destruction at the start of Act II — yield unceasing appreciation and awe.
Jaylen Lyndon Hunter, who portrays Young Simba, brings a terrific energy to the role, and effectively communicates the good intentions but impatience of a cub who can’t wait to become the leader of his land. Darian Sanders, who depicts the older Simba, illustrates a burgeoning maturity and especially bowls us over with “Endless Night,” which is highlighted by the sudden and dazzlingly ethereal presence of his onstage father, Mufasa. Simba’s best friend and arranged future wife, Nala, is played by both Scarlett London Diviney (as a youngster) and Khalifa White (as a lioness). Diviney does her part to lay the groundwork for what comes later, which White evinces in the chemistry she shares with Sanders’ Simba.
Gerald Ramsey imbues Mufasa with a sincerity and regality that adds much dignity to the show. Ramsey’s Mufasa sees the bigger picture, and his humble place in it. He is also capable of being firm, but always heartwarming and as loving as any father would be, which appropriately comes through in the tenderly sung “They Live in You.” On the other hand, Mufasa’s brother Scar, has taken a diametrically opposite turn as the adversarial and scheming lion. Peter Hargrave “wears” Scar’s demeanor in a compelling fashion, with a dry humor and a charisma that is reminiscent of Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard. When Hargrave’s Scar bellows forebodingly, as in “Be Prepared,” he has the entire audience in his thrall.
Furthermore, Scar’s unhinged hyena subordinates — Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed — are fully realized by Martina Sykes, Forest VanDyke, and Robbie Swift, respectively. The three deserve tremendous applause for committing to the wicked zaniness of their off-the-charts characters, earning them an immediate designation as audience favorites, particularly when they react maniacally in response to the utterance of “Mufasa.”
As an advisor for both Mufasa and Scar, the hornbill Zazu is characterized wonderfully by Nick LaMedica who not only impresses with his puppetry, but brilliantly stands out with his blue bowler hat and face paint. With puns aplenty and comedic candor, LaMedica’s rendition of Zazu is sensational. The same goes for Gugwana Dlamini who has become synonymous with the shaman mandrill, Rafiki, who, with staff in hand, and a formidable voice and wit to match, is in some ways the heart of The Lion King.
Last, but not least, are Nick Cordileone as the meerkat Timon and John E. Brady as the warthog Pumbaa. In the musical, the “Hakuna Matata” duo essentially helps raise Simba once he’s isolated from his home, but the two do so much more than simply push the narrative; Cordileone, who is dressed and painted in all green, and Brady who resembles a punk-rock star, entertain with how fluidly they move their puppets and with their own superlative facial expressions. Suffice it to say, they’re a triumphant combination for both adults and children alike.
Overall, The Lion King continues to be a celebration of ingenuity for not only lavishing audience members with a grandeur that has very few musical peers, but for being a paramount public service announcement about the delicate balance of life and how easily it can be disturbed — more realistically, not so much by recalcitrant forces within the animal kingdom but by human greed and foolhardiness. With all its visual and aural magnificence, alongside its preternatural puppetry and costumes, it would behoove us to also come away from The Lion King knowing that we too have a responsibility to protect and uphold the circle of life.
For more information about Disney’s The Lion King at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, and to purchase tickets, please visit: broadwayinhollywood.com