When it comes to Disney, Broadway, and animals, I am shamelessly obsessed. I mean, seriously – call me Walt Irwin and throw me some tap shoes. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either, except that when I was invited to see The Lion King musical on tour here in Orlando, I sang, danced, and more than likely did something animals and children do when they are excited. Why shouldn’t I have? I recall wanting desperately to see the acclaimed theater adaptation of one of Disney’s most revered animated pieces every time that I went to New York, only to be told that tickets should be booked much further in advance. Now, all I had to do was dangle some textual bait in front of my readers for the predatory hybrid of corporate Disney and Broadway, and I got to go for free!
My place in the circle of life–alright, the circle of marketing–is to relay to a particular demographic (Collegiettes, guys who want to read my dirty jokes, my curious parents, my boyfriend, and people whose walls are obnoxiously bombarded with my links) the information that certain Broadway tour shows are in town. Positive reviews seem vital here, but I like to think that my other duty is to be honest. So, perhaps it is a product of my exposure to the hype surrounding the musical or my plummeted mood after a pre-show mating ritual and ticketing issue forced me to miss the opening (said to be the most spectacular portion of the show), but I am going to say it: I am glad that it was free.
Musically, the stage show retained some of its film predecessor’s magic with Elton John’s songs. Unfortunately, they were given what I can only guess was aimed to be a more “African” twist, though I can’t pretend to speak for its authenticity. To me, it only subdued favorites like “Be Prepared,” which was made less ominously rhythmic, and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” which was comparatively lackluster. The latter may be attributed to the subpar singing voices of young Simba and Nala – even after accounting for their young ages; however, the misfit numbers and interludes may be testimony to more composer-based flaws. One such instrumental portion transported me to what can only be described as some sort of African male revue show, as Chippendale-esque men with exposed 8-pack abs suddenly took over the stage in a fit of modern dance steps (and what I may be incorrectly remembering as pelvic thrusts) amidst smoke and strobe lights. No, I am not kidding. Yes, I snorted. Yet another terrible addition was the hyena’s song “Chow Down,” which sounded more like a horrible rock song that I improvised as I strolled to the refrigerator in my underwear, strumming an air guitar and delirious with hunger. The Swahili songs were the most enchanting, with the woman playing Rafiki carrying the “Broadway musical” title with only a bit of help from adult Simba and Nala. Only in moments of their effortless, but nevertheless good vocals did I feel like I was at a Broadway show.
Rafiki’s humorous antics glistened in a Sahara more deserted of good comedic timing than it was of water after Scar’s takeover. Well, unless you count the inappropriate laughter brought on by both Mufasa and Scar’s cheesy plummets to death, or Pumba’s flatulence (before like, the 10th time he farted). The play was stripped of favorite funny moments from the movie, leaving it devoid of lovely bunches of coconuts and no assurance that we could be a big pig too – OY! Despite these disappointments, I nod to some of the preserved dialogue, which contained jokes that, though cliché, were impeccably placed (Pumba asks Simba, “What’s eatin’ you?” when he was upset, only for Timon to add, “Nothin’, he’s at the top of the food chain!”). The comic Zazu also commendable as he broke the fourth wall, referring to the stage’s drapery as a “Target shower curtain” and referring to the “cartoon.”
Zazu’s puppeteer also rendered the character with delightfully quirky movement, though the visible facial expressions of the actor did not seem to match the role. He appeared to be smiling even as the bird was about to practically soil his feathers in fear. Still, the puppets and movement in general remain the most admirable aspects. Animalistic, stylized movement persisted from the choreography to stage blocking, giving even the maskless young actors a feline quality. The dances, though messy at times, were a beautiful mixture of modern, contemporary, and apparently tribal.
While the effort in regard to special effects was there, it often fell short of awe-inspiring. Better spectacles included a lake shrinking due to drought and natural elements coming together to form Mufasa’s face in the sky. Shadow puppets, screens, and miniature versions of characters did little to help the show, though the idea of utilizing different forms of art and media is appreciated. Seeing the show in a large theater full of smaller expectation may have made The Lion King more enjoyable for this musical fan.
Overall, The Lion King musical was like if “artsy” and “corny” were embodied, then they mated, and a lion cub popped out of whichever one of those personifications would be female (the answer is “artsy”). The majority of the Disney story’s characters were manifested into a strange limbo between abstraction and literal interpretation, with human actors working with either just masks or part-puppet-part-costumes to portray jungle creatures. The show did succeed in some of its aesthetic endeavors as well as some intermittent chuckles, but it failed to showcase quality original music or scenes which could elicit as much emotion as an animated film. As girl’s nights out go, I’d consider going to this lion’s den a bit “tame” and suited to a more family-oriented outing. Regardless, I am grateful to have experienced the 6 Tony-award winner in my own hometown, and I encourage Orlando’s Broadway buffs to catch the show at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre from now until May 13th. Tickets can be purchased at broadwayacrossamerica.com.