Touring productions of West End musicals can often feel like a poor shadow of their original run as they usually require considerable downscaling to easily fit into a multitude of venue sizes and shapes, but this tour of Disney’s
the various environments makes The Lion King a visual treat
The plot is almost identical to the original 1994 animated feature (I’m going to pretend that the 2019 remake never happened) and features the original songs by Elton John and Tim Rice as well as additional material by Mark Mancina and director Julie Taymor. An expanded version of the beautiful score by Hans Zimmer also features throughout the musical. The sing-a-long hits are well-served but the show shines in the choral harmonies and African beats by South African composer Lebo M who brings an enchanting blend of rhythm and song to the production.
Thandazile Soni as the baboon Rafiki sings the iconic opening number as an array of singers pop up around the auditorium before flooding the theatre with a multitude of fantastic life-size animal puppets. The massive ensemble cast fill the stage with colour and song throughout the production, with several costume changes representing everything from stampeding wildebeest to the swaying grass of the African savanna.
Stand out performances come from Richard Hurst hamming it up gloriously as villain Scar, Jean-Luc Guizonne as the stoic but loving ruler of the Pridelands Mufasa, and Matthew Forbes does his very best to steal the show as the neurotic, pompous Zazu. Alan McHale and Carl Sanderson deliver some pitch-perfect comic relief as Timon and Pumbaa while newcomer Owain Rhys Davies gets plenty of laughs with some brilliant physical comedy as Ed the hyena.
The central role of Simba is shared between two actors, the first Act sees Cordell Munyawiri who gives the young lion cub boundless energy alongside a delightful Lauren Simpe-Asante as young Nala before Stephenson Ardern-Sodje literally swings in to take over as adult Simba for the second act. Ardern-Sodje is a charismatic presence on stage, and he embraces the animalistic choreography, almost never staying still with many ticks and flourishes that constantly remind you that this actor is portraying a wild predator. His Simba has an almost naive swagger that hints at the heroic journey he is about to undertake. Joining him is Nokwanda Khuzwayo who gives her adult Nala a quiet dignity and poise.
The use of masks and puppets as well as the dynamic staging and mobile sets to represent the various environments makes The Lion King a visual treat. Taymor’s direction and pacing means that this lengthy show never feels overlong and easily keeps the attention of the various small children sitting around me. Some highlights include the lioness hunt portrayed through dance and ritual song, the puppetry of Mufasa’s spirit, and the well-placed asides from several of the characters throughout the show.
Twenty-five years after it first opened on Broadway, The Lion King continues to pack out houses across the world. After experiencing this production, it’s easy to see why. An unmissable experience.