SALT LAKE CITY — On October 15, the Broadway production of The Lion King will celebrate its 25th anniversary. On the same day, the touring production of the play is scheduled to present two performances in Salt Lake City. As the quarter-century mark looms large, it is worth asking whether the show is starting to loose its magic. The answer is no. The Lion King is just as captivating and fresh as ever. Utah audiences should make every effort to see this touring production while it is in town.
Julie Taymor is the mastermind behind the stage adaptation of the hit Disney film, serving as the play’s director, costume designer, and (with Michael Curry) mask and puppet designer. Taymor’s visual designs bring avant-garde theatre to the masses with an endless parade of clever designs that recreate the teeming life of the African savannah. Gazelles bound gracefully across the stage in the form of headpieces worn by dancers. A massive herd of wildebeests stampede towards the audience. The trailing edge of birds’ wings flutters in the breeze as actors wave them in the air. Even though I had seen it all before, it was still thrilling to rediscover the designs and appreciate the level of care and beauty in every scene.
Even with all the visual grandeur, Taymor never loses sight of the emotional core of the play. The characters may be animals, but they act out a very human drama of love, loss, and destiny. For a play known for its massive spectacle, it is surprising that some of its best moments are the intimate scenes. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” is a highlight because the sublime music underscores a scene that shows two people falling in love. Another especially poignant moment was in the first act when Mufasa removes his lion mask and confesses to Simba that he was afraid he was going to lose his son. This was not a scene about two lions; instead, it was a father teaching a life lesson and bonding with his son. Universally understandable moments like these in Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi‘s script are part of what makes The Lion King so enduring.
This touring cast of The Lion King is the equal of the Broadway cast that I saw in 2014. In his first moment on stage, I was mesmerized by Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa; the commanding strength in his body language made him stand out, even with the action of “The Circle of Life” occurring all around him. Ramsey’s voice resonates beautifully in the Eccles Theater, and I enjoyed his unique rendition of “They Live in You” because of the way it showcased his vocal range. Jaylen Lyndon Hunter was a treat as Young Simba. Hunter has magnetism to spare, and he easily carried the first act on his young shoulders. His exuberance in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and eager dancing in “Hakuna Matata” were both a pleasure to watch.
The meatiest role in The Lion King is Scar, and Spencer Plachy was delicious in the part. Plachy gives a diabolical performance in “Be Prepared” as Scar revels in his plan to commit regicide and seize power. There is a depth to the performance, though, especially in his haughty attitude and sneer towards Simba. Moreover, Plachy has mastered the art of acting with his headpiece and using it as an organic extension of his body.
Khalifa White is an enchanting Nala. Her silky voice in “Shadowlands” is soothing and properly conveys the character’s pain. In “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” White exudes elegance, and her pas de deux dance (choreographed by Garth Fagan) added to the hypnotic mood of the scene. As Simba, Darian Sanders is a powerful force in the second act. His moving performance of “Endless Night” could be its own mini-play: in just a few minutes, Sanders brought his character into the depths of despair and then helped Simba find the resiliency to face his challenges. This song is a microcosm for Sanders’s overall performance. He bares his character’s uncertainties and uses them as the building blocks of growth. As a result, it is immensely gratifying at the end of the show to watch Simba ascends to the top of Pride Rock and take his place as king.
Elton John and Tim Rice‘s immortal score (with additional music and lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer) sounds superb. The harmonies of the “Grasslands Chant” and “Shadowlands” are profound to hear. Most beautiful, though, is Fagan’s choreography. I especially enjoyed the vignettes between scenes, which functioned to establish the mood and location of the next scene. Another gorgeous aspect of The Lion King is Donald Holder‘s lighting design. The oblique lighting angles for the featured dancers in “Be Prepared” added depth to the scene and were a memorable contrast between the brightly lit downstage dancers and the actors bathed in red light upstage. Holder also was effective in saturating the stage in a deep color to enhance the mood or set the time of day for a scene. The yellows of the savannah, blues of night, and glimmering stars were all essential for creating evocative scenes.
The national tour of The Lion King at the Eccles Theater offers something that audiences rarely get to see on stage: perfection. Every scene, every design, and every performer contributes a thread that Taymor artfully interweaves to create a beautiful theatrical tapestry. Perhaps it will run for 25 more years in New York, but The Lion King is only staying for four weeks in Salt Lake City. Audiences who see The Lion King at the Eccles Theater will not be disappointed.