Theater Review: “The Lion King”
“The Lion King,” leaping into Richmond with a mighty roar for a four-week run, takes us on an exotic, once-in-a-lifetime safari guided by Broadway in Richmond.
The production arrives with its gorgeous choreography of life-sized puppets of African wildlife, creating a jungle of lanky giraffes, acrobatic gazelles and an enormous elephant. Also, popular songs like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Mata” are weaved in between soothing South African inspired choruses, combining Disney tunes and African hymns.
Magically, the Landmark Theater is transformed into the African savanna. Flocks of colorful birds fly above our heads, while a grassland chorus sways against an airy breeze across scenic designer Richard Hudson’s tropical set, where Mufasa reigns as king of Pride Rock. Under the golden musical direction of Rick Snyder, a touring orchestra plays in the pit while bands of drums, marimbas and somber percussions harmonize richly on both sides of the stage.
Director Julie Taymor has shown exquisite taste in weaving in African rhythms and dialects (there are at least five in total, including Zulu) into the lionized narrative. Taylor curates a diverse exhibit of African life, anthropomorphized through a pack of Disney lions and lionesses. The production shines the most when celebrating African culture, but less so when replicating the 1994 animated film verbatim.
As an illustration, choreographer Garth Fagan has perhaps placed handsomely chiseled hyena dancers in “Be Prepared” to mitigate that scene’s garishness. Furthermore, Scar’s hyena henchmen Shenzi (Rashada Dawan), Banzai (Keith Bennett) and Ed (Robbie Swift) prattling in a sassy Ebonics dialect—somehow feel incongruous with the natural beauty of Garth’s kinetic African choreography and the elegiac lyricism of new songs (outside the original score by Elton John and Time Rice) such as “Shadowland” and “Endless Night.”
Solemn African sounds move the musical along. Additional chants by Tsidii Le Loka for the character Rafiki, the baboon shaman played magically by Buyi Zama, welcome us to the deeply percussive polyrhythm of African music. The additional score of the “Grasslands” and “Lioness” chants by Lebo M. lulls us into the peacefulness of Pride Rock before Scar’s usurpation.
Act I is tailored for the children, but Act II becomes substantially more ethereal. Particularly, pieces of shimmering water coalesce with one another in “He Lives in You” to masterfully engineer Mufasa’s (a dignified Dionne Randolph) heavenly reflection.
The drama becomes more mature, as well. Timon (Nick Cordileone adds a distinctly Brooklyn humor to the role) unexpectedly does the Charleston in drag, and Simba’s (a finely leonine Jelani Remy) campaign to reclaim his rightful place as King of Pride Rock against his uncle Scar (played by J. Anthony Crane with a wickedly British sneer) flares up under Donald Holder’s red, frightening lighting design.
As for the acting, there’s an abundance of talent in this touring Broadway show of more than 40 actors, but Syndee Winters’ Nala stands out from the lion’s den the most. Escaping Scar’s tyranny, Winters’ Nala flees into the bush, beautifully expressing her distress over her decaying homeland in “Shadowland.” Winters sings with an indomitable female spirit.
Lastly, what a delightful surprise to see Chicago actor Mark David Kaplan, who played Tateh in a magnificent production of “Ragtime” at Chicago’s Drury Lane back in 2010 under the direction of Rachel Rockwell, in Richmond fully inhabiting Zazu with a regal dignity and a sarcastic verve.
“It’s a circle of life, and it moves us all.” This exotic production surely moves Richmond too.
“The Lion King” runs through March 11 at Landmark Theater. Good seats are still available for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night performances. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit broadwayinrichmond.com.
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
“I love coming back to show my family and friends what I left to pursue.”March 6, 2017
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