Reviewed by Katherine Damisch
Theatre means to transform physical space into whatever time and place the creator wants it to be. Theatre artists aim to transport the audience into other worlds using the objects and people that are readily available. Anything becomes possible with some technical skill, hard work, and belief in magic. And yet, even the most dedicated theatre-goer, upon hearing that The Lion King is now a stage musical, can be forgiven for having their doubts about its execution.
However, those doubts can officially die. The Lion King is a sensory masterpiece, a delight for the imagination. It became an immersive experience, between use of the stage, chorus members frequently occupying the aisles and balconies, and percussionists housed in box seats. The designers broke the mold when they came up with every set, prop, costume, staging technique, and more. (In fact, many costumes blurred the line between costume, puppet, mask, and set piece.) Sometimes, it became too much and weighed down the story. I do not think I heard a single word of “Chow Down” because I was staring at the hyena costumes, wondering how they are operated by one person without three arms. But it was worth it overall; the sense of “What do they have in store for us next?” between scenes was almost palpable.
Obviously, it was take an impossible suspension of disbelief to make people imagine that those are real animals onstage. So, they seemed to take a different approach: what if these characters are not the actual animals, but actors trying to retell the story? The production supports this theory on every level. The costumes clearly show the people and skin beneath them. The music is traditionally African and uses Zulu language that would be recognizable to many people of that continent. On a few occasions, the actors shed the animal part of their appearance (mask or puppet) and appeared in a far more familiar, human way. One notable example of this occurred when Mufasa tries to teach Simba a sincere lesson after rescuing him from the hyenas. By removing parts of the fantastic, keeping the story within the human realm, it successfully highlighted the emotions and the bonds between loved ones that do not require ornament.