By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
There is probably no more magnificent opening number in Broadway history than “Circle of Life/ Nants Ingonyama” found in Disney’s The Lion King. This Julle Taymor-inspired depiction recreates the opening of the 1994 Walt Disney animated classic showing the creatures of the African savannah journeying to witness the presentation of Simba, the lion cub who will become their king.
This iconic Elton John and Tim Rice number is fused with an embedded authentic African chant in the IsiZulu language by Lebo M. and the noted film composer Hans Zimmer.
The effect of seeing the massive South African sunrise displayed on stage as an array of human actors portraying the African creatures of the savannah arrive to pay homage magically transforms the interior of the theater into an outdoor setting of massive proportions. As actors call out to the stage from the perches on the balcony, the audience feels part of the spectacle as birds fill the air, Thompson’s gazelles run across the stage and massive animals with multiple actors model the mobility of an elephant and a rhinoceros.
Of course, it’s been almost exactly 25 years since The Lion King opened on Broadway, smashing box office records at the New Amsterdam Theatre and, since its 2006 transfer to the Minskoff Theatre in the heart of Times Square. Worldwide more than 100 million people have seen the show and it established an earlier record of reaching the $1 billion gross in 13 years. (Wicked has since shattered that impressive record by more than a year.)
The producing team for Broadway Across New Orleans playing at the Saenger Theater did not want to have local audiences miss out on a chance to set some records of their own. While The Lion King probably won’t beat the records established by Hamilton and Wicked in previous years, it will nonetheless be here for a total of 19 days and dark on only three Mondays during that period. With more than 2,600 seats, it’s a sparkling jewel for producers looking to bring top-notch, polished Broadway shows.
The current national tour of The Lion King makes its return to New Orleans for only the second time in a decade, having played first at the Saenger in the spring of 2012.
The role of Mufasa, the father of Simba and proud leader of Pride Rock, is played by Gerald Ramsey. Ramsey displays his athleticism in several of the key opening scenes, especially in those in which he plays opposite his brother and would-be pretender to the throne Scar, played by Peter Hargrave, and more tender scenes opposite the young performers who play Simba (Jaylen Lyndon Hunter or Jordan Pendelton).
Darian Sanders, who plays the adult Simba, does not make his presence known until the end of Act One’s funny “Hakuna Matata” that leads right into intermission. Sanders and the younger performers are charged with telling the pivotal heart of the story in which Simba comes to believe he is responsible for the death of his father and who desires to run away from his responsibilities rather than face them.
Scarlett London Diviney and Farrah Wilson alternately take on the role of young Nala, the lioness, who is slated to become Simba’s love interest in the second act. Khalifa White, who was recently on Broadway in Caroline, or Change and briefly off-Broadway in Little Shop of Horrors, does an outstanding job of working opposite Sanders, attempting to instill in him the desire to return to Pride Rock and take his rightful place on the throne. The two share their biggest moment in the lilting love ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” given a slight comedic turn by actors and puppeteers Tony Freeman and John E. Brady as Timon and Pumbaa, respectively.
Freeman and Brady carry a good deal of the wealth of comedy at the end of the first act and throughout the remainder of the work. Yes, Pumbaa is the butt of fart jokes (pun intended), but at its heart it’s a Disney kids’ show and what plays better for children than gassy animals?
Nick LaMedica also turns in a great performance as Zasu, the African red-billed hornbill, who acts as a royal attendant to the Lion King. Also, the endearing character of Rafiki, the bamboo medicine man and spiritualist, is charmingly played by Gugwana Diamini, who opens and closes the work.
The costumes, puppetry and choregraphy by Broadway veteran director Julie Taymor still hold up after a quarter of a century and it’s probably not a stretch to say that these animals will always be exciting and enthralling for audiences of all ages.
The songs all hold up too. Young Simba’s “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is full of youthful exuberance, while Scar’s “Be Prepared” has just the right amount of phrasing for a malcontented usurper of the throne opposite the hyenas Shenzi (Martina Sykes), Banzai (Forest VanDyke) and Ed (Robbie Swift).
Projections in “Endless Night” are quite memorable as is the dancing of the lionesses in “Shadowland.” The choreography designed by Garth Fagan is also a highlight of the work.
The twin percussionists Stefan Monseen and Reuven Weiberg are given ample workouts throughout the night, adding their musical adornments on both sides of the stage. Karl Shymanovitz leads a small orchestra of eight musicians taking on the Elton John and Tim Rice score, which carries additional music by Taymor, Jay Rifkin, Mark Mancina as well as Lebo M. and Zimmer.
The lighting design by Donald Holder and the mask and puppet designs by Taymor and Michael Curry are simply brilliant.
Disney’s The Lion King continues its Broadway Across New Orleans run with shows Tuesday through Sunday at the Saenger Theater, 1111 Canal Street from now through November 13. For tickets go to www.saengernola.com or call 504-525-1052.