My children must have watched the movie “The Lion King” at least 500 hundred times – a month. I watched it with them about 350 times, I’d say, with the remaining viewings serving as, I’ll admit it, a babysitter while I got some work done. I had the scenes from the movie timed to the minute. The big scene in the canyon with thundering wildebeests? Great, I had enough time to work on an article. Simba and Nala meet up again after the Pridelands have fallen into near run by Scar? Maybe enough time to get a load of laundry in and finish the dishes. The kids sang along to the songs and reenacted scenes afterword. “The Lion King” was a part of their childhood and my motherhood (and house-wifery).
That’s why, when I saw scenes from the Broadway production of “Disney’s The Lion King“, I had some trepidation. It looked abstract. Had they honored the movie? Was it too artsy for the average audience member and especially children to absorb?
I got the chance to find out when I attended opening night of The Lion King in Denver at the Buell Theatre. The opening scene is stunning with characters, in human/animal form entering from the sides of the theater, down the center aisles, past the audience and up on the stage. An ethereal, life-size elephant! A cougar, birds, antelope and giraffes, oh my, walking right past us.
One of my biggest faults as an observer and critic is that I am constantly looking to see HOW they do things instead of just being able to sit back and take it all in. So I spent the first half of the show being at once impressed and bothered by the disjointedness of the characters’ painted faces with separate masks. I think I missed entire conversations between Scar and Mufasa because I was so busy looking between the actors’ faces and their masks. Faces, masks, faces, masks. And the hyenas! I was obsessed with trying to imagine what it must have been like to be those actors manipulating the animal’s front legs with one hand while handling the hyena’s head with the other. And the giraffe’s! I can’t fathom being stooped over, on stilts, hands AND feet, wearing a head-dress! Unbelievable. It truly wasn’t until the second half that I got past the wondering how to just enjoying. I’m sure most audience members are better able to just take it all in and enjoy the show from the first moments. I envy them.
I had to wonder about the kids in the audience, who, like my children, were so very familiar with the familiar animated scenes of lions looking pretty much like lions and meerkats looking like meerkats. Was this stylistic, modern production just too foreign to enjoy? Apparently not. I looked around and all children were transfixed. Except for being really tired after the two-hour show, they all seemed to have really enjoyed it.
Even if you are weird like me and have to dissect how they do things and why it’s so different from the animated movie, this production is a wonder. I was pleasantly surprised at how the show was firmly planted in African heritage from the Zulu language to the absolutely beautiful African fabrics in the scenery and on the cast members. Scar wore pants that appeared to be made of woven leather and were shaped, well, like M.C. Hammer pants. Mufasa had patterns up and down his muscular arms. Of course, the movie took place in Africa, I just hadn’t thought of it before. But the stage show makes sure you know it and feel it and absorb it. I loved that. I also loved the modern dance throughout, clever sets and inventive props to suggest loping animals, rushing wildebeests, swaying grasses and my absolute favorite, the body of water drying up. Brilliant!
Fans of The Lion King movies won’t be disappointed. They will be surprised and maybe confused at first but then they will be delighted and transported to a mystical, powerful, graceful place.
There may be only a few tickets left but try to get some. And if you don’t, fear not, as enthusiastic as Denver’s audiences have been, I’m sure the show will be back. Then, be very smart and order tickets as soon as they are announced.