‘The Lion King’, running now at the Orpheum, is a stunning work of theatre and art

Lion King, memphis, orpheum
Jelani Remy as “Simba” and the ensemble in “He Lives in You” from THE LION KING
National Tour. Disney. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Ed. Note: In an on-going effort to spotlight local shows and events that will interest teens (some of Baewatch’s biggest readers), I am bringing reviews of the Orpehum’s Broadway season throughout the year. You all should know I love anything dramatic and sometimes outrageous. Enjoy a break from your smartphones and let me know if there’s anything else you would like to see me review! 

As a child of the 90s, I am all too familiar and in love with The Lion King. It never fails to make me cry or become heavily emotional. It was one of the first Disney films I saw, and one of the first I grew to love. This is why when the opening notes of “The Circle Of Life” began at the Orpheum last night, I was filled with chills.  The show wastes no time assaulting you with insanely gorgeous images and costumes. While the performance begins onstage, the cast ensemble files in through the left and right side of orchestra, allowing the audience to view the spectacular detail to costumes up-close. The large array of stilted giraffes (truly remarkable because it took me a good minute to realize these were maneuvered by actors), beautiful leopards and antelopes are gathering center stage to celebrate the birth of Simba, the future king and son of Mufasa.

The opening–and birth of Simba–is complete in less than five minutes and it displays some of the biggest spectacles of the show. The stage version of The Lion King dives deeper into the African culture than Disney’s animated film ever dared to, and if anything, is a celebration of African culture and music. It’s a brilliant time to bring a musical celebrating black actors and African culture to Memphis in February, as it’s Black History Month. In a time when films and Broadway shows are heavily white-washed–even in roles that should be held by different races–it is refreshing and exciting to see a show that is almost entirely full of different races. I was excited to see that the roles of Simba, Mufasa, and Nala (along with most of the ensemble) were all portrayed by black actors.

This celebration of African culture is seen in different moments throughout the show, and overall the tone is full of joy. The actors are clearly reveling in their roles, which allow for some spontaneity with cheeky pop culture references specifically tailored for the Memphis audience. Mufasa’s right hand bird and “assistant” Zazu (cleverly puppeteered by Drew Hirschfiled) stole some of the biggest laughs of the night, dropping a reference to Beale Street and bursting out into a brief rendition of “Let It Go” while locked in a cage by Scar (L. Steven Taylor). It was a nice break in the fourth wall to the audience from a medium that rarely lets actors wink at viewers.

Nia Hollway, lioness, lion king
Nia Holloway as “Nala” and “The Lionesses” in “Shadowland.” Photo: Joan Marcus;
©Disney

The show is full of many talented actors but I was most impressed by Nia Holloway who displayed great strength and control in her role as Nala. Holloway felt every line she said, and performed a brave performance in a much smaller role than the other actors around her. Her Nala was poised, confident and steady. Similarly great was Taylor as Scar, an evil role he fully inhabited with gleeful gaiety. His version of Scar is a little more camp than fans of the Disney film may be used to, but it’s one that he certainly made his own.

Equally impressive were the younger actors portraying Simba and Nala. There is a genuine sense of naivety and happiness in their roles that did not seem manufactured to me. I’m always a little startled by child actors who can inhabit roles so easily, and memorize lines so well. At times I felt like I was holding my breath waiting for one of them to mess up, but there was never a flaw shone.

The only performance that didn’t fair as well was Dashan Young’s portrayal of Simba. Young’s lines often felt forced and flat. I could understand the direction he took–a childlike innocence, mimicking the performance of the younger Simba–but often times Young couldn’t match the same level of understated maturity that Holloway’s Nala displayed.

The show moves along fairly quickly, and in extremely imaginative ways. The production asks us, the viewers, to dispose of our ideas of sets and traditional costumes. Dancers prance out wearing grass on their heads, as two others join them with wooden sculptures of Simba and Nala, who dance along the top of the “grass.” The costumes and sculptures are not made for us to believe we are actually watching a lion or hedgehog but to draw the correlation that the Disney film began: these are animals with human emotions that we can identify with. As an artist, I appreciated the intense labor and creativity put into designing these pieces. My favorite piece was the lionesses’s head pieces with long sheets attached to their eyes to depict the constant sadness (and tears) from Mufasa’s death.

lion king, memphis
The Tree of Life from THE LION KING National Tour. Disney. Photo Credit: Joan
Marcus.

The Lion King is heavily choreographed from fight scenes–specifically the final one–to one of the flashiest numbers “I Can’t Wait To Be King.” It’s pretty hard to not be in awe of how insanely talented the dancers are, and how much time in rehearsal was probably spent on these numbers. Substituting dramatic tension for choreography has it’s benefits and disadvantages, but The Lion King is graceful in avoiding many missteps.

The show reminded me a great deal of War Horse, another show that asked us to abandon reality and give in to imagination as we watched a beloved puppeteered horse come to life onstage. Disney’s stage version of The Lion King similarly is asking viewers to also become lost in the visuals and emotions. The Lion King caters more towards kids–fart jokes abound!–but it was clearly made to appeal to all generations. For all the kids who were in attendance, they had a large mix of plush stuffed animals, music and t-shirts to choose from. (Say a silent prayer for parent’s credit cards… God knows my mom would have had a hard time keeping me away from a stuffed Simba)

The Lion King holds the honor of being seen by over 15 million people across America and grossing more than $1 billion dollars. There is a huge amount of love put in from the actors to the audience in their ambition to sell the show as something positive and worth experiencing.

As I looked all around me to far up into the balconies and saw everyone on their feet during the final curtain call, I knew the love was felt.

The Lion King runs til March 1st, with more than 31 performances left, at the Orpheum. Tickets start as low as $34 and can be purchased here

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