The crown may be slipping, but this show still rules them all
All of them have been turned into Broadway musicals, but none with the ongoing worldwide success of The Lion King. This can be wholly attributed to the genius of director Julie Taymor, who pioneered or appropriated leading puppetry practices to evoke the glories of the African savanna.
It must have seemed a risky prospect at the time – if in doubt, try googling footage of Little Mermaid the Musical for evidence of the disaster this might have been – and it’s easy to forget just how unconventional Taymor’s approach was. Much of the music is deeply African, eschewing Western verse/chorus song structures for something more choral. The staging is stripped back and abstracted. The puppets are radically transparent.
But while Disney indulged Taymor’s vision, they didn’t exactly give it free rein. The book [Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi] is full of outdated slang and crass pop references that cut against the majesty and ritual. One song, Be Prepared, is interrupted by a frankly bizarre Broadway dance routine that wouldn’t be out of place in a Backstreet Boys music video circa 1997. It points to a lack of faith, but given the immediate success of The Lion King it isn’t surprising that these tonal inconsistences have by now been super-glued on.
Thankfully, everything Taymor brought to the production remains as glorious and moving as ever. The famous opening number Circle of Life is jaw-dropping, having found its natural home in the Regent Theatre after the cramped and compromised season at Brisbane’s Lyric Theatre. An explosion of colour and movement, it lays the foundation for all that is to follow.
Narratively, it is simplicity itself. Scar [Josh Quong Tart] overthrows his brother King Mufasa [Rob Collins] and usurps the crown. Prince Simba [Nick Afoa] must right the wrong and retake the crown for himself. It’s almost shockingly monarchist and patriarchal, but nobody seems to take much notice. Look over there; it’s a giraffe.
This production is as well-oiled as Afoa’s chest, and the leads are all great. Collins is such an anchoring and expansive presence, and Quong Tart all but twirls his whiskers as the poisonous Scar. Buyi Zama is a knockout as the mandrill Rafiki, and Cameron Goodall and McGregor shine as Zazu and Timon, both employing remarkable puppetry skills to great comic effect. Afoa and Josslynn Hlenti make a lovely couple as the central lovers.
The lighting design [Donald Holder] is magnificent, subtly shifting the mood through bold use of colour. At one moment near the beginning of Act two, the stunning blue of the African sky bleaches into grey, conjuring the corruption of the land under Scar’s rule with chilling efficiency.
There is no doubt that this musical still has the power to enchant, often leaving the audience spellbound. The stagecraft is impeccable, but not everything works. The children are mostly irritating, the hyenas seem imprecise and the climax feels strangely awkward. Action doesn’t suit Taymor, as the disastrous Spiderman: Turn off the Dark attests. She’s far more at home with ritual and ceremony, which is why her opening and closing moments carry such weight. They are pure spectacle, and genuinely moving as a result. In direct inverse to the story, the further away it moves from its source material, the more kingly this show becomes.