NOTE: This review was written by The Lion King alum Kyle Wrentz in celebration of the show's 20th Anniversary on Broadway...
A sunrise on a day. It could be a Saturday or a Wednesday, but regardless, 20 years later, The Lion King is still a timeless piece of artistry and magical allure. The moment you hear Rafiki’s clarion call across the pridelands welcoming the new prince to the kingdom, you are lost in the story, as the iconic procession of animals begins.
It is no wonder that sold out audiences continue to flock to the Minskoff Theatre 8 times a week, bringing their own legacy of family members that keep this fable alive. The score still maintains its variety of gifts, especially the songs rooted in the African tradition. Whether it be Grasslands, Rafiki Mourns or Shadowland, the ensemble sings in exceptional harmony with lush beautiful melodic tones that capture the essence of the evening.
As for the 20th Anniversary cast, Tshidii Manye continues her extraordinary run as Rafiki; she’s playful and illustrious and every time she hits the stage, the audience is in the palm of her hand. L. Steven Taylor captures all facets of the king, Mufasa. He is regal and full of gravitas, while also letting us glimpse behind the mask in the tender private moments he shares with his son, young Simba (played by an energetic Kenneth Aikens who displayed an awesome backhand spring). He is aptly assisted by Cameron Pow who is charming as Zazu, the trusty hornbill and confidant of the royal family.
Stephen Carlile, a prominent actor from London's West End, is deliciously wicked as Scar, he seems to be having a ball plotting and scheming away for the coup of the century. He brings along three misfit hyenas for the ride; hilariously played by Bonita Hamilton, James Brown-Orleans, and Enrique Sequra. Jelani Remy brings a vulnerability and magnetism to the role of Simba. From the moment he swings out on that vine in the middle of the jungle, you are rooting for this lion to find his way back home and claim himself as the rightful king. Jelani’s interpretation of the folk tune Endless Night was performed with an honest purity that truly was a highlight of the evening.
Timon and Pumbaa keep the comic relief coming all evening. Ben Jeffery sets up the jokes nicely, and Fred Berman knocks the ball right out of the park, all the while keeping us full of chuckles. A special mention needs to go to the remarkable dancers of The Lion King ensemble who performed updated choreography throughout the evening. Their new movement during the She's Going to Eat Me portion of the performance gathered rapturous and sustained applause, so kudos to them for their remarkable artistry and sustained commitment to the storytelling.
Overall, The Lion King continues to be a wonderful evening at the theater. You will laugh, cry and marvel at all the beauty around. As Rafiki says during Circle of Life, “There is far too much to take in here, more to find than can ever be found.” That declaration still rings true, 20 years later. Every time I see The Lion King, I notice something new, I consider the story through the eyes of another character’s perspective. In such a time of turmoil and discourse, it is lovely to get lost in this iconic piece and be inspired by all the cultures and individuals who continue to come together to make the entrancing musical still shine so radiantly today.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Seen purely as a visual tapestry, there is simply nothing else like it. Suddenly, you're 4 years old again, and you've been taken to the circus for the first time. You can only marvel at the exotic procession of animals before you: the giraffes and the elephants and the hippopotamuses and all those birds in balletic flight. Such is the transporting magic wrought by the opening 10 minutes of The Lion King, [director Julie] Taymor has introduced a whole new vocabulary of images to the Broadway blockbuster."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Julie Taymor's staging of Disney's The Lion King is a marvel, a theatrical achievement unrivaled in its beauty, brains and ingenuity. Leaping far beyond its celluloid inspiration, the stage version improves upon nearly every aspect of the hit 1994 animated film, from visual artistry and storytelling to Lebo M's score and the newly African-ized pop songs of Elton John and Tim Rice."
Greg Evans for Variety
"A jaw-dropping magnificent spectacle. The show and the playhouse are enchanting. The unprecedented production is worth every penny. If this is Disney's idea of a theme park, we are delighted to report that the theme is quality."
Linda Winer for Newsday
"Awe-inspiring! Broadway theater is alive again. [Julie] Taymor's imaginative ideas seem limitless. it's a gorgeous, gasp-inducing spectacle. Most important - against all odds - it has innocence. The show appeals to our primal, childlike excitement in the power of theater to make us see things afresh."
Richard Zoglin for Time Magazine
"The breathtakingly staged Broadway adaptation of Disney's king of the cartoon jungle is an instant theater classic."
Chris Willman for Entertainment Weekly
External links to full reviews from popular press...