The Lion King – Edinburgh Playhouse

Music & Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice

Book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi

Direction, Costume Design & Mask/Puppetry Co-Design by Julia Taymor

1994, The Lion King, was by and large a tremendous gamble for The Walt Disney Company. It would go on to break records, particularly for animation, launch platinum soundtracks and define generations emotional state. An extravagance of stage enchantment there’s little to say which hasn’t been said before. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the Pride Lands, the production is as compelling as ever, and if you’re a fresh cub to the Savannah sun – how we envy your ability to see this for the first time.

With the break of dawn, and those familiar notes courtesy of Thandazile Soni’s Rafiki, a sensory ripple of tingled necks erupts throughout The Edinburgh Playhouse. By the climax of The Circle of Life, Walt Disney’s The Lion King has made its mark, a literal stamp on musical theatre. The brilliance of Elton John & Tim Rice’s original score, with a deeper infusion of African tones and vocals, set against the hued orange dusk of the Savannah plains, is the playground of puppets who take inspiration from every cultural aspect of African, European and Asian design.

Born to be king, Simba is a young cub who can’t wait to claim his crown. His folly though lies in this blind-sighted ambition, naïve to the dangers of the Kingdom and those closer to home, Simba is usually under the gaze of Royal advisor Zazu, or his father Mufasa, king of the Pridelands. Envious, irredeemable and callous, Scar, Simba’s uncle, finds the opportunity to seize control of the pride and eliminate both his brother and his nephew.

How does one emulate a timeless narrative which captured to hearts of generations, crafting a stage version of something which is already a loose adaptation of a Shakespearean classic? The answer is that Allers and Mecchi’s book blends the sources closer together, while Julie Taymor’s phenomenal direction and design elevate the production into a unique visage, The Lion King maintains the 1994 films plot, characters and structure, with only a few additions. Its framework is less animated, for obvious reasons, but in place of this, it achieves a sense of realness, even with the vibrant hues of physical prop design, masks and puppetry. 

From the aesthetic to the audio and lighting, The Lion King is an extravagant parade of sensory thrill. Donald Holder’s lighting, casts a spectrum of emotion and tone, complimenting the piece flawlessly, ranging from the bold colours of I Just Can’t Wait To Be King, to the softer mutes of Soni’s interludes as Rafiki’s marvellous presence captivates us all. Award-winning, identifiable and reflecting both the life on the African plains, and the death which tragically can follow, Taymor & Michael Curry’s puppet design, from the mousiest to the tallest is nothing shy of perfection, with a variety of designs, including Japanese Bunraku puppets.

Scorching the imagination, The Lion King’s stirring search into the difficulties of loss, on such scale is as inspirational as ever. The entirety of Simba’s evolution, from innocence into, essentially, depression and his journey to acceptance and eventual forgiveness, not only from his pride but his own, is told entirely through the score, intensified by visual effects and Jean-Luc Guizonne’s powerful rendition of Mufasa. The realisation of his father’s words to return home, spoken from a stage enveloping mask, to the score of Under The Stars is a maudlin moment of tender beauty which showcases Jonathan Gill’s conduction of the orchestra, and Dashaun Young’s role as Adult Simba’s progression out of the darkness and the vast shadow cast by Scar.

A resident supporter of the bad boys, even we must accept the revulsion one expects with Scar, notorious as one of the few successful villains who “removes” his obstacles in pursuit of the crown. Silver-tongued yet so roguishly charismatic, Richard Hurst emulates the original depiction of the character but morphs into the physicality of Taymor’s costume design. Older, less agile, Taymor’s Scar is a planner, a tactician, but the sculpt of his headpiece, as remarkable as it may be, succeeds only with Hurst’s facial expression. Tip-toeing the line, Hurst’s performance leans on exaggeration, requiring to do so to remain sinister, without distancing the audience.

In a choice manoeuvre, though no less pleasant, his original stand-out number from the film, Be Prepared, is turned from a fast-paced, volatile number into a spoken song. Hurst’s position as a graduate of The Royal Academy comes, naturally, with control of his vocals, which is evident in his following number The Madness of King Scar, elevates Scar into a Shakespearean foe, reminiscent of Jeremy Irons iconic performance. Quintessentially Machiavellian, Hurst’s performance, heralding the dawning of a new age, is only successful with his denizens of the Elephant Graveyard.

Looking to Chow Down on what they can, Shenzi, Banzai & Ed, the slack-jawed, cackling trio of Hyena’s return but with an added musical number for their stage outing, performed by Rebecca Omogbehin, Simon Trinder & Alan McHale. As intimidating as the characters may be, helped with the hunched, looming presence they pervade, they serve as an example of The Lion King’s key strength is its side characters and humour. The Hyena’s, Timon & Pumba and most certainly Zazu quite often rob a few scenes away from our leads.

Matthew Forbes, frequently breaking the fourth wall to advertise Disney’s other properties, is a delight to watch prance, frolic and stress around the stage, fleeing after our Young Simba and Nala. Leaping to the other end of the spectrum, where Frobe’s comedic talents dominate, Jossylnn Hlenti’s Nala and Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy’s Sarabi propel the lionesses to the forefront. Hlenti’s attitude, her precise movement to Garth Fagan’s choreography commands a stage presence equal to that of Ohene Maccarthy’s stoic authority.

Particularly for the lionesses, Fagan’s rhythmic choreography is powerfully adept, traditional dance mingles with a performance element of movement for the puppets. From the heavy beats of the Hyena’s break dancing to the looser, community feel of One by One, with free-flowing birds and the big number He Lives In You, The Lion King is as much a production for the dance enthusiasts as it is the vocalists and the storytellers.

So, in the immortal words of Scar himself; ‘Be Prepared’. Be prepared for a pride’s golden age, a glorious production which celebrates life, redemption and rejects the wallowing doldrums of regret. A story for the ages, from Shakespeare to the Savannah, The Lion King from stage conception has been a pinnacle of musical theatre, of artistic construction and as the King returns to Edinburgh, there’s an understandable desire to recapture childhoods and introduce new fans to The Circle of Life.

The Lion King runs at The Edinburgh Playhouse until Sunday March 29th 2020. Tickets are available from: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/disneys-the-lion-king/edinburgh-playhouse/

Photo Copyright – Walt Disney Company

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