‘The Lion King’ review: In must-see musical, the commitment to great artistry is everywhere

The cover of the program for “The Lion King,” now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theater, boasts the claim that it is “The World’s #1 Musical,” and it is easy to understand why. Now 25 years since its inception, it checks all of the boxes for a quality production: a compelling story, beautiful music (by Elton John and Tim Rice) and excellent performers. But what earns it the top spot is the commitment to costumes, sets, makeup, props, and puppetry. As a first-time viewer of this show on stage, I have frankly never seen puppetry this exceptional outside of a puppet exhibition.

Like the 1994 animated Disney masterpiece, the play opens with the song “The Circle of Life/Nants’ Ingonyama,” which won a Grammy for best arrangement, instrumentals and vocals. The music alone (sung exceptionally by Gugwana Dlamini as Rafiki) is enough to bring tears to your eyes, but when paired with puppets by Julie Taymor and director Michael Curry that mimic animals crossing the plains; giraffes, elephants, antelope, birds …. it’s breathtaking. The audience gasped audibly multiple times, amazed at the sheer artistry on display.

The show boasts gigantic, full-body, human-operated puppets, shadow puppets and pole puppets that work in harmony with the ingenious lighting, sets, costumes (the flower costumes felt phoned in, though) and makeup to create stunning optical illusions and theater magic. Watching a 5-year-old mouth agape at a giraffe towering over his head is worth the price of admission alone.

‘The Lion King’

In a recent Variety article, director Julie Taymor revealed that humor from one country to the next does not usually translate, so the production works with local comedians to craft jokes which can produce local social commentary. For example, a South African production cast Timon as a Black South African actor and Pumbaa was played by a white Afrikaner actor. Taymor was quoted as saying: “Don’t underestimate your audience. … Don’t think because you’re doing something that’s going to have a 4-year-old in the audience that you have to dumb it down.”

Darian Sanders plays Simba in “The Lion King.”

Deen van Meer

However, if I had one major quibble about the play (outside of the patriarchal and monarchal messages), it was that the 1994 film held significantly more emotional weight that the kids in the audience were clearly anticipating and were robbed of. Throughout Act I, a chorus of children could be heard timidly (and eagerly) asking their parents “Is this the scary part yet?” Art is a safe medium for children to process feelings of fear without real danger. Yet when the “scary” parts arrived (Mufasa’s demise, and the creepiness of the hyenas), it became clear that the production had scaled back the scary to earn a G rating. I hope that when a revival comes around the next director leans in and gives us the truly creepy puppet hyenas we deserve. Even the romance of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was neutered and played for laughs.

However I do appreciate Taymor’s sentiment otherwise. Just because this is a story “for kids” there is plenty for even the most jaded theater snob to appreciate. Peter Hargrave is absolutely enthralling as Scar, able to strike fear into your heart while also evoking laughter. Darian Sanders’ voice soars as Simba in “Under the Stars,” and Nick Corileone and John E. Brady are a dynamic comedy duo as Timon and Pumbaa. And the standout stars of the show were the ensemble dancers and actors whose choreography and fluid movements during transitions often stole the show. The group of female lions on the hunt together held some especially imaginative surprises. Ultimately, The Lion King is a must-see musical packed with once-in-a-lifetime puppet artistry and theater magic.

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