Disney’s The Lion King has circled back to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the spot where the Tony Award-winning musical made its South Florida debut just over a dozen years ago.
Few shows have such a long touring life — or hold up as impressively — as The Lion King. But hold up it does, thanks to the care lavished on it by Disney Theatrical Productions and the often stunning work of its creative team, particularly Julie Taymor.
Taymor, who in 1998 became the first woman to receive a Tony Award for directing a Broadway musical when she won for The Lion King, also designed the show’s costumes, co-designed its masks and puppets, even contributing to the show’s African-infused music and lyrics.
She had inspired collaborators, to be sure: Elton John and Tim Rice, whose catchy songs helped make the 1994 animated version of The Lion King so enduringly popular; composer-lyricists Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Hans Zimmer; choreographer Garth Fagan; set designer Richard Hudson, lighting designer Donald Holder, and fellow mask-puppet designer Michael Curry. But the vision that became the stage version of The Lion King, which has earned more than $6.2 billion worldwide (making it the highest-grossing property in entertainment history), flowed from Taymor’s brilliance.
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True to its animated roots, the script by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi is simple enough to keep kids entertained. But its themes — the circularity of life and inevitable death, ruthless scheming for power, the importance of courage and responsibility — create a Shakespearean undercurrent that makes The Lion King thought-provoking for adults. And the show’s visuals, music and dance are simply dazzling for theatergoers of any age.
The opening of The Lion King, for example, is one of mainstream theater’s most breathtaking experiences, whether you’re seeing it for the first time or (like me) the fifth. Tshidi Manye, the actor playing the baboon-like mandrill shaman Rafiki, uses her richly expressive voice to call a procession of African animals to the stage to welcome the newly arrived lion prince Simba into the world. And down the aisles they march — an elephant, antelopes, birds, zebras and more — joining lions and majestic giraffes onstage.
In short order, the show introduces most of its key characters: the regal lion king Mufasa (L. Stephen Taylor) and his stalwart mate Sarabi (Tryphena Wade), his chatty avian advisor Zazu (Drew Hirschfield), impetuous young Simba (Jordan A. Hall, alternating with Tré Jones), his best pal Nala (Nya Cymone Carter, alternating with Tyrah Skye Odoms) and the haughty villain of the piece, Mufasa’s ambitious brother Scar (Patrick R. Brown).
Later, we meet Scar’s hyena sidekicks Shenzi (Rashada Dawan), Banzai (Keith Bennett) and Ed (Robbie Swift); Simba’s jungle pals, the meerkat Timon (Tony Freeman) and the warthog Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz); and, after a time, the grown-up Simba (Jelani Remy) and Nala (Nia Holloway), whose childhood friendship quickly morphs into romance.
The magnetic and amusing Manye, the droll Brown, the commanding Taylor and the funny Lipitz have played their roles on Broadway, and with their fellow actors make for an uncommonly strong touring cast. As young Simba, Hall has charisma and dancing skills to burn, so that you do miss him when the grown-up Remy (who’s a fine singer-dancer-actor) takes his place. The ensemble singers and dancers contribute glorious sounds and movement that conjure Africa.
The Lion King does have some scary moments, and at Friday’s official opening, there were a few wails from upset little ones. But for the vast majority of those who will join the more than 75 million who have seen the show, the best of the Disney stage musicals should prove a captivating, visually sumptuous and thoroughly entertaining experience.
If you go
What: Disney’s ‘The Lion King.’
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday (additional 1 p.m. show Jan. 28, no evening performance Feb. 1), through Feb. 1.
Information: 800-745-3000 or www.browardcenter.org.