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Disney's The Lion King
Lyceum Theatre, London

The Lion King Review from 1999

Wednesday, 20 October, 1999
Review by: 
Darren Dalglish

"The Lion King", Disney's award-winning Broadway musical has roared into the West End with over 40 actors, singers and dancers performing a spectacular menagerie of a musical at the beautiful Lyceum Theatre. Director Julie Taymor, who also wrote some of the music & lyrics as well as designing the costumes and helping design the masks & puppets, has done an incredible job of transforming the 1994 animated film into a stage musical. In fact, the Broadway show, which opened in November 1997, has won 24 major awards including the 1998 Tony Award for best musical and the show has been sold-out for every performance since it opened. Will it have the same impact over here? Well it could as tickets have been selling well with nearly all weekends fully booked up to June next year.

The story concerns young lion prince Simba, whose birth has pushed his evil uncle (Scar) back to second in line to the throne. Scar plots to kill both Simba and his father, King Mufasa, and proclaim himself as king. Simba survives but is led to believe that his father died because of him and so he decides to flee the kingdom. Simba is befriended by a farting warthog called Pumbaa and a meerkat called Timon who look after him. When Simba has fully grown he is faced with the decision of whether to return to his kingdom which his evil uncle has almost destroyed.

So is the show as good as you would expect from Disney? Well, yes and no! The special effects are fantastic and the whole show is colourful and lively. However, while the story is good, it does need a little more punch to it as I found the show struggling to keep its momentum at times. Also, the music is patchy. Most of the songs are by Elton John and Tim Rice, and there are additional songs by Lebo M, Julie Taymor, Mark Mancina, and Hans Zimmer. A very impressive line up, but while there are some memorable songs like 'Circle Of Life' and "He Lives in You", most of the other songs are quite ordinary. Nevertheless, the special effects and puppets more than make up for these shortcomings and will delight children and adults a like.

There is a strong and enchanting performance from Josette Bushell-Mingo as Rafiki, and a brawny performance from Cornell John who is a convincing Mufasa. Young Simba is played impressively by the cheeky looking Ross Coates, a name to look out for in the future. Other notable mentions are Rob Edwards, playing the 'camp' evil Scar, Martyn Ellis as 'Pumbaa', and Simon Gregor as Timon. Generally though, all the company performed solidly and professionally.

The show has received a thumbs-up from the popular press: Sarah Hemmings of THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "As blockbuster musicals go, this is one with beauty and brains." CHARLES SPENCER of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH" says, "For once a mega musical lives up to the hype. This is a dazzling show with the heart of a lion." NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A beautiful dazzle of invention and imagination." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE of THE TIMES says, "Wonder of African jungle is show worth catching." PETER HEPPLE of THE STAGE says, "This stage version of the Disney animated film is a spectacular delight."

The Lion King is a wonderful spectacle with a giant elephant, giraffes, antelopes and many more animals brought to life by some stunning costumes, masks and special effects. However, one comes away with mixed feelings thinking that maybe it should have been a lot better. There is just no satisfying some people!!

(Darren Dalglish)

Also known as the Julie Taymor show. On the previous evening, and in the morning, I had seen the furore that was the star-packed premiere. Chris Tarrant enthused about the show on both the BBC and ITV. This was, apparently, the pinnacle of the (huge) marketing effort. The show will obviously run for years - it has vast pre-sales and will clearly be a big success. This aside, is this collaboration of Disney and Julie Taymor any good?

I had prepared myself to be underwhelmed, having seen the previous Disney effort Beauty and The Beast, and having seen clips of the Broadway version, but was nevertheless somewhat disappointed when I still felt that way when the curtain fell. (I say fell, but it kept getting caught up, so it didn't really 'fall' correctly, but you get my gist.)

It isn't that it's not good - it is - but I think the overall feeling is that it is generally insubstantial. You 'see' this show rather than 'feel' it. It is not really a conventional musical, but rather a piece of theatre with music.

Those who have seen the film may wonder how well the sweeping African vistas, as well as the animals therein, are recreated. The answer is a qualified 'very well'. The use of puppetry has been well documented, and acclaimed, but lets itself down on occasion by trying to be a little too clever and all-encompassing. Sometimes the audience is left wondering what specific costumes are supposed to represent (the ant-hill for example). Also, especially in the opening scene, there is simply too much going on at the same time for the audience to take it all in. As a result of the innovative approach, and this 'overload,' it is initially difficult to get a grasp on the show, and it sometimes appears messy. You do become used to it, however, certainly by the end of the first half. This having been said, the costumes/puppetry are generally impressive - especially those of Timon, and the hyenas.

Quite in contrast to the 'overload' scenes, there are also sections where very little happens, and on a number of occasions the performance comes very close to dragging. Whether this is a flaw is open to debate, but certainly the erratic changes of pace and 'feel' don't help the audience to become accustomed to the design in the first half. The humour of the show, and the tone in general, does help alleviate this - it's been neatly tuned for both the children and the adults in the audience. Whereas I could (and did) criticise BATB for being patronising and, in places, childish, the same cannot easily be said for The Lion King. In-jokes, self-referencing and references to UK culture all add to the tongue-in-cheek charm of it all. This is particularly the case in the second half, with the introduction of Timon and Pumbaa, who add the fun typical of Disney's comic characters. It is mainly because of this switch to Disney's strength, i.e. a more character-driven approach (as opposed to action-driven), that the second half seems to bubble along more satisfactorily than the first. The second factor influencing this, of course, is the familiarisation to the costumes and design in general.

The sets are cleverly simple and fantastic at the same time, as with the lighting. There are sections, especially in the second half, that are quite stunningly beautiful, but equally, there are times where it is messy and erratic (especially in 'crowd' and 'fight' scenes). Efforts have also been made to bring the show into the audience as well, with the African drums being placed in the boxes, and with the cast often moving through the audience, most notably at the start of each half.

The score is delightful. African in style, it has been penned by Sirs Elton and Tim (John and Rice, as with the film) with additions from a crop of others. Perhaps the most notable of these is Lebo M, whose South-African rhythms help form the prevailing musical tone of the piece.

Critics have fallen over themselves to praise the show, saying how marvellous it is. While it is good, even very good, it is ultimately not 'great', at least on first viewing. It's lovely to look at and listen to, but I doubt whether there is sufficient substance to justify repeat visits for all but the most ardent of fans. In this respect, it is similar to BATB. It is for this reason that I doubt whether it will 'run forever,' despite the success of the film (and Disney's undeniable marketing expertise). Another contributory factor may well be it's biggest attraction at the present time. It is, almost by definition, very different in both style and sound to other West-End shows, and it may well be that after the initial surge to see the show, interest will flag as the novelty wears thin.

All of this may just be pessimism, of course. The cast is universally excellent, their voices and movement are excellent and you find yourself wanting to applaud heavily at the end, if for no other reason than the sheer invention of it all. In the final analysis, however, it's just too flawed to be a 'great' show - and it ends up being simply very good.

(David Heppell)

I'll start by saying that i had a ticket to see this at the end of January but i simply could not wait that long to see it - while down in London i tried to get a £10 ticket for Rent (no luck) and also a ticket to see Miss Saigon before it closed down at the end of the October (no luck) so third time lucky i decided to try and get a ticket for the Lion King - knowing the demand for tickets was high i didn't hold out much hope - however i got a seat two rows from the front of the dress circle (B26) - this was a fantastic seat and really perked me up - trouble was i then had to wait six hours until i finally got to see it - on arriving at the theatre i have never seen so many ticket touts trying to sell tickets - i probably could have sold my ticket for a lot more than i paid for it but i had wanted to see this so badly that i wasn't going to sell it for any price.

This has to be one of my all time favourite disney films - i was really interested to see how the animals would be portrayed on the stage - i'd listened to the OBC recording and heard so much hype about the show in new york (sold out a year in advance and full houses every night).

The time finally arrived and i took my seat - i had a great view of all the action on stage let me say it's worth going to see this just for the opening number "Circle of Life" - we start with a bare stage and Rafiki comes on stage and begins singing - two cast members appear in boxes on either side of the auditorium and join in with Rafiki - what looks like papier mache' sun rises from the stage and two giraffes appear on stage - this is done so cleverly (cast on stilts) that the audience broke out into applause - as more animals appear, a leopard and zebras, you just find yourself clapping as to how simple yet brilliant it is - then as the stage fills up an elephant and a hippo make their way down the stalls aisles and get up onto the stage - amazing.

The story for the rest of the first act concentrates on how the young Simba grows up and finds out that one day he will be king - this annoys his uncle Scar who was next in line to the throne so his uncle concocts a plan to do away with simba and his father Mufasa so he can take his rightful place as the king of the pridelands - this leads to one of the highlights of the first act (a song called Be Prepared) where Scar tells his hyena henchmen (and woman) to get ready to take control of the pridelands - this scene in turn leads to an absolutely stunning setpiece where the hyenas cause a pack of bison to stampede - young simba is sitting on a ledge at the front of the stage and there are v shapes cut out in the set - as the bison get nearer the theatre really shakes - you really have to see this for yourselves to get the full effect.

The first act ends with the song "Hakuna Matata" where we meet Timon and Pumbaa - it's clever how Timon is played (again you have to see it to really appreciate it) - it's at this point the young Simba grows into the adult Simba.

The second act opens with a song called One By One where puppeteers appear all over the auditorium and you have birds flying everywhere - the second act concentrates on how Simba's betrothed Nala finds him again and tries to persuade him to come back to the pridelands and put right all the wrongs Scar has done - but Simba has a confidence crisis and this leads to a great song called "Endless Night" - as Simba and Nala become ever closer the song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" is sung - this is a great song but is staged in such a way that it is almost embarrasing to watch - you have cast members on ropes intertwining with each other - i could have done without this as it makes the song longer and for me didn't quite work as it was staged - Rafiki then gives Simba the courage to go back to the pridelands (he lives in you reprise) - this is quite a spectacle to see as we see Mufasa's face appear behind a waterfall - The confrontation finally takes place between Scar and Simba - Scar admits to killing Mufasa and Simba can finally stop blaming himself - he then final ly takes his place as the king of the pridelands and the Circle of Life begins again with Simba and Nala having a lion cub of their own.

I guess i have to admit that although i really did enjoy the show the second act did appear to drag on a bit - the first act zooms along at a cracking place and has all the really spectacular set pieces - there are a couple of slow numbers that seem to slow the pace of the second act (Shadowlands and CXan you Feel... being the main culprits.)

Also the stage did appear to be barren for long periods of time but i guess that as the show is set in the barren plains of Africa this really couldn't be helped.

All the cast were in fine form especially the actor playing Scar (Rob Edwards) who played it with just the right amount of menace - the actor playing Mufasa (Cornell John) had a really strong voice and sang "They Live In You" really well - the adult Simba was in fine form as well and he sang "Endless Night" just as i wanted it sung - the two child actors playing the young Simba and Nala were also impressive and sang "I Just Can't Wait to be King" with much energy - all the actors playing the hyenas were also in impressive voice. I suspect this show will run for many years to come and will probably last longer than Beauty and the Beast has. Overall it is really worth going to see just for the sheer spectacle of the staging of the first act - as i said before, my only complaint would be that the second act could do with a bit more speed in it but really i would just be picking hairs.

So go get booked up if you can and see one of the most spectacularly staged shows you will ever see.

See you in the stalls

Regards Geoff

Technically/visually it was stunning, so anyone into design/costumes/sets etc will be blown away. I just thought it lacked 'soul', if you know what I mean, as though it should have been a sort of showcase in Vegas but then they had to go and mess with that idea and attach a very thin storyline, so that it could be classed as a musical! Kids under 5 will be bored senseless and it's only just under 3 hrs, so not for the kiddies really (nor are the prices!). Some petty niggles:

The young kid was playing it as though he was a cocky streetwise kid in the Bronx but then grew up to have a south London accent without the attitude...very un-Disney!!

Daddy lion has to remove his 'head' before singing a song to his son.....why?? a crown, I could understand but his whole head? especially when it's the puppet head that is talked to all the time and therefore we assume it is that which we are led to believe 'is' the character etc.....confusing for the kids and breaks up the continuity of it!

I was desperate for a really big song for the guys to use their lovely mellow voices to the hilt but instead got loads of ensemble 'heinz' ad chanting...very frustrating!

Why was Scar played as though he was Tim Curry in Rocky??....camping it up overshadowed the menace of the character which should have been there.

Petty little niggles in the scheme of the whole show I know, but niggles don't appear in a good show, if it really is that good....only my opinion but hey!!! I just wish some of the really good, but lesser known shows, had the marketing budget to throw their way like Disney does!!!

(Donna Birkwood)

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