Its campaign to lure us to the Empire for its seven week run has been a full on assault on the entire city; last night Disney finally got to show the critics its stuff. The Lion King roared (groan) into the venue to showcase what a remarkable, inventive and special piece of theatre it is.
The film may be 20 years old, the stage production 15; but the wonder of it remains, from its breathtaking beginning – is there a better opening scene in musical theatre? – to end.
The story begins with the birth of Simba the lion, born to be king of the Serengeti plains. He may start off as a wriggling wooden puppet, but soon grows into the unbearably cute Solomon Gordon (at this performance), who gets to have a ball during well-known numbers like I Just Can’t Wait to be King.
Director Julie Taymor and scenic designer Richard Hudson transform the Empire into a whole new world (hold on, wrong Disney). That makes for a lot of scenery to chew; but Stephen Carlisle is a grower as baddie Uncle Scar, who drives Simba out from his friends and family and into the jungle. Guiding the audience through things is shamanic baboon Rafiki, played faultlessly by Gugwana Dlamini. (Did I just say shamanic baboon?)
Some wisecracks lost their showbiz sparkle by virtue of the fact the material appeared to be shoehorned in to appeal to UK audiences, and the sound was tricky in parts. The show was at its strongest not during its classic songs but during the simply beautiful ensemble numbers (and with a cast of 50, that’s some ensemble).
Nicholas Nkuna as grown up Simba and Liverpool-born Ava Brennan as his childhood friend and sweetheart Nula were lovely together, and John Hasler and Lee Ormsby as Timon and Pumbaa brought skillful comic relief to a story of real light and shade. As mentioned earlier, the opening scene at Pride Rock, including Circle of Life, was one of the most memorable an audience could ask for; another unforgettable highlight was the stunning He Lives in You.
Disney have talked the talk with The Lion King because it undoubtedly walks the walk. Superb entertainment for all ages, its beautiful design, classic tale and unparalleled production values make it – predictably, but unashamedly – a must see.