It begins with birth, and the dawn. The sky changes colors in a perfect imitation of mood rings. Animals crowd the stage, parading through the audience — cheetahs, antelopes, elephants, birds. And lions, standing proud atop a sprawling rock, presenting their new offspring for all to see. It’s a sequence many of us have seen before, imprinted on our brains since childhood. But never like this. It’s the circle of life, they sing. And it moves us all.
From the very beginning, the stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King welcomes viewers to suspend their disbelief through a showcase of color, movement, sound, and pure creativity. It’s a study in organized chaos that wouldn’t be out of place in lively Manila, which is the first stop in the award-winning musical’s first international tour.
With additional runs in Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, and South Africa, the tour marks all kinds of milestones: it is the 25th global production of the musical, launched in celebration of the 20th year since its Broadway debut. It boasts the most diverse cast and crew yet, with members from 18 countries.
“(We have) all of these talents, all of these cultural experiences that everybody brings together,” says producer Michael Cassel. “It was like the United Nations! There was such excitement in the air. It was palpable.”
According to Felipe Gamba, director of international strategy at Disney Theatrical Group, part of what makes seeing The Lion King onstage so special is being able to experience something you love in a whole new way, from a different point of view. “It’s just beautiful because I think audiences get to [see] another dimension to the story, to the characters. There’s more depth.”
It was important, he adds, that it be executed with the right idea. And Julie Taymor, who had helmed the original production, certainly had it. Her avante-garde style worked well when it came to the production design, resulting in very hands-on props, costumes, and particularly incredible puppets described by Vanity Fair as “low tech to high tech.”
Through the clever use of lighting and choreography, scenes such as the wildebeest stampede and the lioness hunt become believable feasts for the eyes. A giant lion’s head seemingly materializes out of thin air among a patch of stars.
Hakuna Matata: Six talented Filipino kids join the first international tour of The Lion King, along with a diverse cast made up of 18 nationalities.
Songs that have soundtracked our lives — soulful fusions of jazz, pop, and African beats combining English and Swahili — including Hakuna Matata and Can You Feel the Love Tonight? become new all over again in beautiful and heartfelt sequences. Characters we’ve grown up with come alive through the performance of actors who adore and stay true to the material while making it their own, and we get a chance to fall in love with them again.
Joining the cast for the entire tour are six young Filipino actors: Julien Joshua M. Dolor Jr., Gabriel P. Tiongson and Omar Sharief L. Uddin, who play young Simba; and Sheena Bentoy, Uma Naomi Martin and Felicity Kyle Napuli, who play young Nala.
“They’re really just the most precious souls,” says Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile (Mufasa) of the boys who play young Simba. “They’re funny, they’re smart, and they make really good acting choices. It is such a marvel to work with them. They all bring different elements to (their character).”
A refreshing change sees a female take on the spirit guide Rafiki, who is male in the original movie. Actress Ntsepa Pitjeng describes her character as “a mother and a warrior” who sees the future and has wisdom to spare, inspired by South African sangomas, or traditional healers.
It’s a wonderful tribute to South African culture, but it’s important to note that after nearly 25 years, The Lion King continues to resonate and speak to people all over the world. The cast and creators are quick to point out that its legacy lies in its themes: family, coming-of-age, learning to accept the past, life and death, love and loss. The musical is a full, one-of-a- kind, world-class experience, but it cuts deep because its core is very simple and very human.
“It’s the heartbeat of the world. It’s got a universal story,” says Calvyn Grandling, who plays Simba.
“Everybody has a part in it,” adds Noxolo Dlamini, who plays Nala. “From wherever you are in the world, you can (say), ‘We’re represented!’”
“I don’t feel like I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” says musician and composer Lebo M., who has been with The Lion King every step of the way since its inception. He keeps coming back because it continues to give him opportunities to work with new people, explore new countries and cultures, and keep learning new things about Pride Rock and all the light touches around it.
“It’s always unique,” he concludes, and this is definitely a sentiment audiences will share. “It always feels like the first time.
The Lion King in Manila has been extended until May 20. For tickets, visit www.ticketworld.com.ph.