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Review: ‘The Lion King’ still a stage spectacle at 25

Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa in "The Lion King"

There’s more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done. There is far too much to take in here … ” – Lyrics of “Circle of Life”

If you’ve seen a film version of “The Lion King” but not the live musical that opened on Broadway 25 years ago, those lyrics from the opening number provide an excellent mini-review of the North American touring production now in Chicago. When you see “animals” majestically parading down the aisles (such as a life-size “elephant”) and across the stage (a “giraffe” with a stilts-adept actor), and you hear the music and lyrics of Elton John, Tim Rice and others, you can’t help but be enthralled. Indeed, there is far too much to take in here.

Circle of Life - Cheetah and Giraffes - "The Lion King"

The live show, which won six 1998 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Costume Design and Best Direction of a Musical, is making its fifth Chicago visit since 2003, and it hasn’t lost any of its luster. I was extremely impressed when I saw the show on Broadway a decade ago; I’m still awed by the version Cadillac Palace Theatre audiences get to enjoy in 2022.

Lionesses Dance in "The Lion King"

For those who’ve been living under a rock and don’t know about Pride Rock – or Simba, Mufasa, Scar – a brief synopsis may help. As the show opens, Rafiki (Gugwana Dlamini), a mandrill, summons all the animals in the Pridelands to celebrate the birth of Simba, the son of King Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey). Mufasa is the brave lion who rules over the wildlife of this African savanna. His younger brother, Scar (Peter Hargrave), isn’t happy about a new heir to the throne. Scar thinks that since he has the “lion’s share” of the brains in the family, he should be king. The naïve Simba (played as a child by Jordan Pendleton in the performance I saw) sees the humor, not the danger, in his uncle, saying, “You kill me,” with Scar responding icily, “I wish.”

Simba and his young lioness friend Nala (played by Farrah Wilson at this performance) travel beyond the borders of the kingdom – against the explicit guidance of Simba’s dad – when Scar mentions that area is an elephant graveyard. What Scar doesn’t share is the presence there of ravenous, though slow-witted, hyenas who could put Simba and Nala in peril. When Mufasa comes to the rescue after being alerted by Zazu (Nick LaMedica), a hornbill head servant, Scar plots a Plan B: killing both Mufasa and Simba. When the scheme partially succeeds, Simba goes into exile and meets a nervous meerkat named Timon (Tony Freeman) and a smelly warthog named Pumbaa (John E. Brady). In short order, they convince Simba of their “no worries” attitude, “Hakuna Matata,” and that catchy number lightens the overall mood right before intermission.

Will Scar’s ascension to power be a disaster for the long-term survival of the area wildlife? Will Simba (now an adult lion, played by Darian Sanders) ever return to Pride Rock? Will Simba’s friendship with Nala (adult lioness played by understudy Thembelihle Cele) develop into something more if he should return? Will Scar end up scarred or worse? Will cub fans – as opposed to Cubs fans – get a chance to see a celebration for another baby lion? All these questions are answered in Act II.

Darian Sanders as Simba in "The Lion King"

Why is this production worth catching before its final performance in mid-January? Several reasons:

  • The spectacle. The colorful costumes (kudos to Tony-winning director/costume designer Julie Taymor), mechanics and makeup that allow actors to become talking, singing, beautiful animals in the aisles, on stage and in the box seats on either side of the stage (an area where percussionists are also stationed) provide long-lasting, happy memories.
  • The music. “Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata” and the Oscar-winning Best Original Song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” are all here, but Mufasa’s touching guidance to a young Simba – laid out in the less familiar “They Live in You” – is especially moving. Throughout the musical, the orchestra, under the direction of Karl Shymanovitz, is excellent.
  • Specific portrayals. Hargrave is a witty villain you love to hate. Ramsey is the epitome of a powerful, loving father who wants his son to be prepared for a future without him. Sanders embodies the strong lion Mufasa always hoped Simba could be.
  • Humor. Freeman and LaMedica – ably supported by Brady and by hyenas Shenzi (T. Shyvonne Stewart), Banzai (Forest VanDyke) and Ed (Courtney Thomas) – bring considerable comic relief to offset the drama. For instance, when Timon and Pumbaa first meet Simba, one asks, “What’s eatin’ ya?” to which the other interjects, “Nothing. He’s at the top of the food chain!”

Waving my magic wand, I’d love to see a better balance between the volume of the orchestra, ensemble and lead vocals. A prime example is the song “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”; Pendleton’s lyrics could only be partially understood. Also – be aware that unlike operas that have supertitles with English translations above the stage – there are no English translations for a few songs (part of “Circle of Life” and “Nao Tse Tsa,” for example) and some dialogue (many of Rafiki’s lines); the power of the music and the movements/gestures/expressions of the actors will help you grasp the essence of what’s being communicated.

In summary, Disney’s “The Lion King” is a fantastic, memorable night at the theater, and I’m not “lion” about that.

• Paul Lockwood is a singer, local theater actor (including the recent Theatre 121 adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”), Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, theater reviewer, podcaster, columnist, business proposal writer and past president of TownSquare Players. He has lived in Woodstock for almost 22 years.


WHAT: “The Lion King”

WHERE: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago

WHEN: Through Jan. 14

INFORMATION: www.BroadwayInChicago.com