PERFORMANCE REVIEW: THE LION KING
By Jain Lemos
As pristine as the night it opened on Broadway 19 years ago, The Lion King is more than a treasured family extravaganza, it’s a complete course in musical theater production. Despite cries of “that can’t be done!”, sheer ingenuity and dedication turned Disney’s 1994 animated film into this gigantic stage delight, surrounded by the vibrational beats of music giants Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer. The company’s North American Tour swings through Duke City again at long last, running at UNM’s Popejoy Hall through October 30, 2016.
Most are familiar with the story of Simba, the precocious cub and heir to the Pride Land’s kingdom who must learn life’s lessons the hard way. But who knew it was so funny? Here is where theatre takes command. The timing of live action allows the cast’s actors to ride the audience’s reactions through dozens of hilarious exchanges.
Buyi Zama as the mandrill mystic Rafiki is the first voice on stage and the lingering note you’ll remember long after the show. Zama’s incredible rich and ancient overtones tingle your skin and her powerful baboon screech prickles your laugh center. She is by far the troupe’s star vocalist and cherished soul who shines in all of her scenes.
Drew Hirshfield as Zazu is a riot. He’s totally mastered his puppetry skills, bringing the hornbill to life while delivering dozens of ditzy, deadpan zingers. Two other priceless camp performances are from Nick Cordileone as Timon, the social meerkat, and Ben Lipitz as the flatulent warthog Pumbaa. Cordileone and Lipitz are part Smothers Brothers with a sprinkle of Burns & Allen. They clearly love their roles and pour a ton of effort and energy into each line and movement.
On the more serious side is Mark Campbell as the antihero Scar. He brings a fearsome voice to the ominous “Be Prepared” and rides high over his pack of submissive hyenas: Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed are played by Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Keith Bennett, and Robbie Swift respectively. All three work seamlessly together overcoming a tremendous amount of rigging to achieve the illusion of nasty carnivores with nothing but food on their minds.
The lions are masterfully dressed and their costumes cleverly allow the primary cast to deliver lines and songs without major hindrances. Young Simba (played by BJ Covington in this performance) and Young Nala (Savanna Fleisher in this performance) are darling and already so accomplished, prancing around with their confidence oozing. Their voices are nearly indistinguishable in the duo, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, and both power through the strong notes with ease.
In Act Two, Lion King veteran Dashaun Young as the grown up Simba is such a heartthrob he could just stand there and get an ovation. Thankfully, he does a lot more than that. Watching him leap is jaw-dropping and he touches all sentiments in “Endless Night”. Nia Holloway as the adult Nala is tender and beautiful singing, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”. Gerald Ramsey as King Mufasa and Ashley Ware Jenkins in the role of Queen Sarabi add seasoned maturity to the pride.
Surrounding the main talent are the Ensemble performers who fill every inch of the theatre with sophisticated dance and harmony. Their artistry is second to none. Layers of chorographical styles are continuously showcased—you’ll see ballet and jazz along with hip-hop. The story also preserves six indigenous African languages and the actors portray 25 species of animals, birds, fish, and insects. The signature puppets and masks are the creation of Michael Curry, the preeminent designer for Disney, Cirque du Soleil, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and everyone in-between. Orchestration for the tour features Jamie Schmidt as Conductor for the show’s sensational track. The entire cast and crew must pinch themselves often for the opportunity to be part of this iconic musical theatre achievement.
The visual delights are non-stop with each scene change setting the bar so high it’s no wonder this piece still has legs. Stats for The Lion King are mind-boggling: It’s won 70 major awards internationally and has been seen by more than 85 million audience members. If you aren’t one of them, don’t wait, just go. There are still seats left for the Albuquerque run with tickets available at http://www.unmtickets.com/popejoy-presents.