The arrival of the Broadway National Tour of Disney’s The Lion King for a three-week engagement at the Orange County Performing Arts Center is something to roar about. It’s not every day that one of Broadway’s longest running hits (over 5000 performances and counting) arrives in town. It’s not every day that a show that filled Hollywood’s Pantages for over 950 performances back in 2000-2003 makes a return visit.  And don’t hold your breath waiting for some Southern California regional theater or CLO to put on their own production. With its humungous cast of fifty plus performers, over 200 puppets, and roles that require cast members portraying giraffes to saunter across the stageon four stilt legs, you can be darn sure that a big budget National Tour or sit-down production is the only way you’ll be able to see The Lion King … ever. Thus, although it’s not a case of now or never, it’s certainly now or a long time from now.  If ever a production could be called a must-see for musical theater lovers of any age, it’s the one playing at OCPAC.


Credit Julie Taymor’s Tony-winning direction and costume design, those ten score puppets and dozens upon dozens of masks (designed by Taymor and Michael Currie), new songs and music (by Elton John, Tim Rice, Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Taymor, and Hanz Zimmer) added to those John and Rice wrote for the 1994 animated film, and Tony-winning choreography, scenic design, costumes, and lighting for turning an 89-minute cartoon into a nearly three hour Broadway extravaganza, the like of which has never been seen (and probably never will be again).

You know the plot, you know the characters.  There’s hardly a kid or former kid alive who hasn’t seen the Oscar-winning animated film at some time or other, and though I still have reservations about its celebration of the monarchy system (Simba’s kingdom is definitely not one where all are created equal), I have not a single one about this spectacular spectacular.


From its breathtaking, awe-inspiring “March Of The Animals,” to its “Grasslands Chant” with cast members appearingas the grass, to the brilliantly executed stampede which nearly takes young Simba’s life, to Mufasa’s and Scar’s slow-motion falls to their deaths (performed without aid of stunt lions), to the dozen soaring bird-kites which open Act Two—this is musical theater at its most epic.

The Lion King’s use of puppets and masks is unparalleled.  Leaping antelopes, pouncing tigers, prancing zebras, strutting giraffes, and elephants the size of … elephants—these and more are embodied by a uniquely talented cast of triple-threats.  

Watch how the actors portraying Mufasa, Scar, and the Hyenas lower their headpieces when face-to-face for a challenge, lunge, or attack.  Watch how mini-puppets used in chase sequences transform into human actors for their “close ups.” Watch how the heavenly vision of Mufasa appears out of nowhere to fill the OCPAC proscenium all the way to the top. You’ve never seen anything like it.

Though Simba’s family appear in stylized (i.e. more human) versions of their movie selves, Taymor made the savvy decision to keep Zazu the hornbill, Timon the meerkat, and Pumbaa the warthog looking exactly as they do in the movie, with live actors manipulating/inhabiting) puppets which follow the film design to the letter.  (As in Avenue Q, the audience sees actor and puppet as simultaneous incarnations of the character.)


This being a Grade A Broadway National Tour, the all-Equity cast is truly Broadway caliber.  Brent Harris (Scar), Dionne Randolph (Mufasa), Phindile Mkhize (Rafiki), Tony Freeman (Zazu), Ben Lipitz (Pumbaa), Tyler Murree (Timon), André Jackson (Simba), and Marja Harmon (Nala) all do stellar work, with particular shout-outs to a very Shakespearean Harris, the comedic gems of performances by Freeman, Lipitz, and Murree, and the graceful Harmon’s gorgeous pipes.  South African Mkhize’s native dialect with its signature clicks adds an extra touch of authenticity.

The deliciously hammy trio of hyenas are Omari Tatu (Banzai), Andrea Jones (Shenzi), and Ben Roseberry (Ed).  Much of Act One belongs to Young Simba (a particularly winning Elijah Johnson at the performance reviewed), with Jamariana Tribble shining as Young Nala on press opening night.

Completing the cast in superbly versatile fashion are Nicole Alvarez, Anthony Bryant, Amyia Burrell, Erynn Marie Dickerson, Ntomb’Khona Dlamini, Michael Alexander Henry, Shameika Hines, Christopher Figaro Jackson, Portia Madwaza, Vusi B. Mhlongo, Selena Moshell, Marquis Moss, Sihle Ngema, Rob Parks, Rhea Roderick, Maurica Roland, Mpume Sikakane, John Sloan III, Jason Veasy, Jeremy Witherspoon, Electra Weston (Sarabi at the performance reviewed), and Dion Wilson.



Superlatives are in order for scenic designer Richard Hudson, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy (though the actors’ voices could use greater amplification), hair and makeup designer Michael Ward, fight director Rick Sordelet music director/conductor Rick Snyder, production stage manager Fred D. Klaisner, and production supervisor Doc Zorthian.  Garth Fagan’s graceful, athletic, balletic choreography is one-of-a-kind.

With its OCPAC engagement the current National Tour’s only scheduled California stop, SoCal musical theater lovers have only until June 13 to catch The Lion King while it’s here. Miss it now and you’ll miss out on one of the most revolutionary musicals in Broadway history.  On the Roar-Meter, The Lion King scores five big, loud roars out of five.

Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
May 28, 2010

Photos (by Joan Marcus/Disney) are from The Lion King’s Broadway and touring productions

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