Nature Comes Alive Onstage in Lion King
For many, the Lion King is one of the highlights of the Disney Renaissance. Released in June 1994, the Disney classic about a young lion’s journey to accepting his place as the rightful king is the fourth highest-grossing animated film of all time. The film was first adapted for the stage in the United States, and in 1999 the musical production of the Lion King debuted at London’s Lyceum Theatre. It has been running ever since then, and this week I had the pleasure of attending a performance for myself.
The play is visually stunning. At first glance, the Lion King doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice for stage adaptation, since all of the characters are animals, but the play’s producers are ingenious when it comes to costume design and staging. A combination of beautiful and complex costumes, puppetry, silhouettes and choreography brings both the animals and the plants to life onstage, while lighting creates the stunning environment of the African savanna—from the warm orange of the rising sun to the twinkling starlight that Mufasa tells Simba was home to the kings of old.
At times, it’s odd to watch actors wearing a lion’s face on their heads (which face are you supposed to look at??), but having humans play non-human characters adds a new emotional depth to the story. Even though I watched the Lion King film dozens of times throughout my childhood, I bawled my eyes out during the scene when Mufasa dies. There’s something startlingly heart-wrenching about watching a small child, perhaps only 9 or 10, cry over the still body of his dead father.
London’s Lion King perfectly balances its emotional depth with the lighthearted fun that’s an important part of any good Disney tale. The play is riddled with jokes for both young and old, and the serious, emotionally heavy scenes are interspersed with more upbeat humor and fun. For example, Mufasa’s death, which had many audience members reaching for their tissues, is followed by the silly, fast-paced “Hakuna Matata.”
The play also brings the 21-year-old story into the current time and place with a few minor, but memorable, alterations. Instead of singing “It’s a Small World,” Zazu irritates the evil king Scar by belting out “Let It Go”—a change that had every parent in the audience who has heard the famous Frozen song a thousand too many times doubling over in laughter.
My main complaint coming out of the Lion King wasn’t really about the show itself, but rather about its unusually obnoxious audience. All my friends and I were shocked by the behaviour of the people around us, from the girl who pulled dinner out of her purse in the middle of the performance (making the entire row smell like strawberry yoghurt), to the couple in the row behind us who talked loudly through every quiet scene. Word of advice: If you go to a fancy West End show, don’t chew with your mouth open. Or illegally record the performance on your blindingly bright phone. Or enter the performance five minutes late and make an entire row stand up and block people’s view to let you past. Being disruptive can ruin the show for everyone.
Still, despite these rude disturbances, the Lyceum puts on an incredible production of the Lion King. The show is funny, engaging, fast-paced, visually stunning and emotional, combining all the best bits of the classic Disney film and imbuing them with new life onstage.
If you ever get the chance, go see the musical production of the Lion King. You won’t regret it! Trust me, I’m not lyin’. (Get it? Lyin’? Lion?)
(I’m so sorry.)