It’s a tough undertaking to succeed Disney’s The Lion King’s original Broadway cast. That ensemble starred John Vickery (Scar), Samuel E. Wright (Mufasa), Tsiddi Le Loka (Rafiki), Heather Headley (Nala) in her career-launching turn, and a brilliant, tragically ill-fated newcomer, the late Jason Raize (Simba). The production took the Great White Way and, in turn, America, by storm, going on to spawn international stints from Germany to Singapore and, basically, every country where American theater is welcome.
Indeed, there are considerable shoes for the company now playing Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theater to fill. This is the third bus-and-truck tour to hit the Twin Cities since The Lion King’s 1997 world premiere opened here and, it shouldn’t surprise — none of them have contained a comparable cast.
Fortunately, the show pretty much is performer-proof. If you own the first bit of charisma, can sing and, at the same time, move from one end of the stage to the other without falling off it, you’ll do well. This is because the directing, music, choreography and costuming absolutely kill. For this go ’round, Disney shaved the run time. “The Morning Report,” one of the fun-est numbers, has been cut, along with an exquisite aerial ballet. The dialogue is clipped, snipped in several spots, losing, here and there, lines that, albeit incidental, enrich the book. At length, it works.
Julie Taymor (director, costume design), Garth Fagan (choreographer), Richard Hudson (scenic designs) and the music and lyrics team of Elton John, Tim Rice, Lebo M and Hans Zimmer with book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi came up with the proverbial stroke of sheer genius. From opening number (whatever you do, don’t show up late, come casually strolling in, and figure, “So what if we miss the first few minutes?”) to closing curtain, The Lion King is made of top-shelf, theatrical magic.
Syndee Winters (Nala) sings “Shadowlands” with compelling grace and pulls her character off in deft fashion, gestures depicting feline subtlety. Her nine year-old counterpart Sade Phillip-Demorcy (young Nala) is wonderfully spirited (look her as the baby elephant in the finale) and a little lady with big pipes, cheerfully bursting through at the crescendo for “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”.
Filling in for vacationing Buyi Zama, Ntomb’Khona Dlamani (Rafiki) brightly engages. Mark David Kaplan (Zazu) works fine, keeping things lively as the king’s long-suffering aide to whom falls the thankless task of looking after irrepressible youngsters Simba and Nala. J. Anthony Crane (Scar) is a key strong point, waxing arrogantly sinister as the king’s evil younger brother out to steal the throne.
It’s not easy to put together a truly effective comic duo. Nick Cordileone (Timon) and Jonathan Weir, subbing for Adam Kozlowski as Pumbaa, carry it off without a hitch, their timing and interplay flawless. Another comic gem is the trio of moronic hyenas played by Monica L. Patton (Shenzi), Omari Tau (Banzai) and Ben Roseberry (Ed).
Stage manager Kenneth J. Davis doesn’t hold to Taymor’s directing. Accordingly, there’s the annoyance of lines too often being stepped on swallowed. The acting doesn’t come up to the singing in some places, but you come to expect that in even the best of musicals. In the full scheme of things, drawbacks are comparatively minor. Ultimately, Disney’s The Lion King is a spectacular triumph of the first order.
Next week: an interview with Syndee Winters, who plays Nala in The Lion King.