A show to thrill the soul: ‘The Lion King’ on tour at Kennedy Center

Few shows are genuinely not to be missed. 'The Lion King' is one of them.

The Lion King has been through many incarnations, including a beloved animated film and a photorealistic CGI reboot. It is said to be loosely based on Hamlet and several other Shakespeare dramas, and the Bard himself very likely purloined the plot from earlier writers. The story of a usurped throne reclaimed by the young, rightful king is probably one of the oldest in the books.

But the truly unmissable version of this well-loved tale is the stage musical, conceived for Broadway and now on tour at the Kennedy Center. It presents an immensely rich combination of music, acting, puppetry, costumes, dance, and lighting that can only be truly appreciated in person. There is good reason that the live version of The Lion King is the highest-grossing entertainment title in box office history, having been presented in over 100 cities in over 20 countries to more than 100 million people.

Gugwana Dlamini as Rafiki in the North American Tour of ‘The Lion King.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Two elements make it stand out from all that came before: Julie Taymor’s Tony-winning direction, puppetry, costumes, and staging, and Lebo M’s African additions to the score.

When the producers originally conceived of Lion King for Broadway in 1997, they had to find a way to translate the magic of its animated format to the stage, while also adding more — because a simple transcription from screen to stage will just be an awkward imitation. A live, staged performance must give the audience an experience that is unique to theater or it is not worth doing (however often it is tried).

For this, they turned to Julie Taymor, an innovative costumer/designer/director with extensive experience working with masks and puppets in Indonesia and elsewhere. Her talent for cross-cultural combinations seemed tailor-made for enhancing the important African elements of The Lion King.

So, too, were the talents of South African performer and composer Lebo M, who wrote and sang the opening Zulu chant at the beginning of the original movie, additional music that earned him a Grammy Award for the soundtrack, and more music for a sequel, Rhythms of the Pride Lands. It is Lebo M who enriched the score of the stage show immeasurably with African chants, harmonies, and rhythms, such as “Grasslands Chant,” “The Lioness Hunt,” and the electrifying Act 2 opening, “One by One,” which make the original movie songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, such as “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata” seem almost to pale by comparison. It is telling that after experiencing the opening number, I wasn’t quite sure if they had even sung the famous “Circle of Life,” so enthralled was I by the other music and stagecraft going on.

Darian Sanders as Simba and Khalifa White as Nala in the North American Tour of ‘The Lion King.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

It is the work of these two artists that makes The Lion King such a breathtaking theatrical experience. Nothing compares with the thrill of seeing Julie Taymor’s life-size elephant and giraffes and cheetahs coming down the aisle and bowing gracefully to each other and the King, and her vivid flowers, plants, and even grass cavorting around the stage, becoming living scenery. Even small innovations delight, such as charming shadow puppets, or the masks on Scar and Mufasa that sit on top of their heads or hang before their faces, depending on the actor’s posture as human or animal, or a dancer whirling in a steel spiral portraying a colony of red ants. There is even a baby elephant at the end, hearkening back to both the large one in the opening and to the elephant graveyard, providing a vivid, hopeful embodiment of the Circle of Life.

And Lebo M’s mystically beautiful African chants thrill the soul. The tour cast boasts 14 Ensemble Singers, and they, along with the 14-strong orchestra directed by Karl Shymanovitz, including two energetic drummers on either side of the proscenium, fill the Opera House with glorious music that one feels as much as hears.

It is fascinating that in a show with so much delicious puppetry and elaborate costumes, one of the most moving moments is at the beginning of the second act, when the ensemble singers and 12 ensemble dancers perform without masks in gorgeously rainbow-hued dashikis, boubous, and headwraps. And later in the act, when Simba’s father, Mufasa, appears in the sky, he is supported by the unadorned faces of the chorus, making a magical moment more real and moving.

Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa in the North American Tour of ‘The Lion King.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

In a show that has become such an institution, the individual performances are not the focus. The performers here are well up to the job, as they should be. Gugwana Dlamini is both powerful and funny as Rafiki, opening the show with her buzzing vocals. Gerald Ramsey is just what is needed as Mufasa, strong in leadership but tender with his son. Zazu (Nick LaMedica) and Scar (Peter Hargrave) are fine as well, making the most of their incongruous British accents inherited from Rowan Atkinson and Jeremy Irons in the movie. My companion thought Scar could have been a little more melodramatic, but I rather liked his somewhat lower-key portrayal. Nick Cordelione as Timon is particularly charming in how he manipulates his meerkat puppet. And Darian Sanders’s Simba and Khalifa White’s Nala are graceful in their sinuous catlike motions. The entire cast is excellent.

The one flaw is that the sound design is not up to the level of the rest of the production. It is difficult to pick the lead vocals out from the rest of the soundscape, which seems unfair to the performers.

But it is the music and stagecraft that really set The Lion King apart. My companion had never seen the show and was expecting, frankly, some sort of Disney World experience, entertaining for children and fans of the movie, well executed, but ultimately a glitzy but shallow commercial transaction.

What we saw was the height of theatrical art. He was blown away.

Few shows are genuinely not to be missed.

The Lion King is one of them.

Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Disney’s The Lion King plays through July 29, 2023, in the Opera House in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($39–$195) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

The program for The Lion King is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.

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Jennifer Georgia
Over the past [mumble] decades, Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters, and programs, and generally theatrically meddled on several continents. She has made a specialty of playing old bats — no, make that “mature, empowered women” — including Lady Bracknell in Importance of Being Earnest (twice); Mama Rose in Gypsy and the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd — when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.”) She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; she is quite easygoing. Really. But Jennifer also indulges her lust for power by directing shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies. Most recently, she directed, costumed, and designed and painted the set for Rockville Little Theatre’s She Stoops to Conquer, for which she won the WATCH Award for Outstanding Set Painting. In real life, she is a speechwriter and editor, and tutors learning-challenged kids for standardized tests and application essays.


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