Rough Week? Hakuna Matata! THE LION KING Will Enchant Your Worries Away!

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Mukelisiwe Goba as “Rafiki” in THE LION KING North American Tour. ©Disney. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

After a blockbuster film, the highest grossing Broadway production in history, ridiculous DVD sales and constant worldwide tours, everybody knows what Disney’s THE LION KING is all about, right? Yes, I still haven’t seen the movie (might as well wait for the “live” action remake now), but I was fortunate enough to see the last tour when it set attendance records at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis.  Since there shouldn’t be any reason to rehash the coming of age story for the future King of the Beasts amid the evil schemes of his sinister uncle, allow me to discuss what makes THE LION KING musical one of the most unique and memorable theatrical experiences you’ll find anywhere.

THE LION KING features an extraordinary mix of costuming and puppetry, designed by the show’s director, Julie Taymor with master puppeteer Michael Curry. Traditional African dress is seamlessly blended with flourishes that hide or accentuate the machinery of puppetry. Some of the puppets are obvious by necessity. Characters such as Zazu, Timon and Pumbaa, played by Drew Hirshfield, Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz, respectively, probably wouldn’t work so well if they wore full body costumes. Zazu, for example, would look more like an exotic Big Bird from Sesame Street, and his proportionally small stature next to the mighty King Mufasa would lose unspoken context. The most impressive pieces in the show, in my opinion, are the lion’s masks. When the actors stand tall, the masks look like ceremonial headdresses. With just a quick motion, from standing calmly to a more animalistic offensive or defensive posture, Gerald Ramsey transforms into the titular Lion King and Mark Campbell transforms into his fratricidal foil, Scar. Nala, played by Nia Holloway, and the other lionesses project a bit more maternal love than Scar’s and Mufasa’s more fearsome countenances, but you don’t need to safari in the African bush to know not to mess with a lioness. The giraffes, elephant, rhinoceros and other creatures that make up the grand procession that starts the show with Elton John’s “Circle of Life” are nothing short of incredible, so get to your seats early!

Of course there is more to a great show than terrific costumes. You need strong actors, dynamic voices, memorable songs and an engaging story. Disney never lets you down on any of those fronts, does it? With a book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, a pair of Disney veterans who co-directed and co-wrote many beloved Disney features including Mecchi’s work on the animated version of THE LION KING, and music and lyrics by Sirs Elton John and Tim Rice, every scene in the show leaves an impression on you somehow. I’ve mentioned some of the cast already, but I want to point out some of the folks who did a particularly stellar job at the April 20th show. Mufasa’s Gerald Ramsey is built like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a sculpted golden Adonis who would have been every bit as commanding a presence if he wore clad in a potato sack. However, it was his tenderness in handling his brash son Simba (played alternately by young stars Devin Graves and Jordan Williams) that I enjoyed the most. Scar’s Mark Campbell projected an aristocratic sense of entitlement with the petty jealousy of an unloved child and the dangerous menace of cornered predator. Nia Holloway’s beautiful voice on the song “Shadowland” gave Nala a chance to shine on her own. Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz were spot-on with their comedic timing, and make “Hakuna Matata” a song that stays with long after the show.  The showstopper, however, was Mukelisiwe Goba, stepping up from the understudy position to play Rafiki, the wise and wonderfully weird mandrill usually played on this tour by Buti Zama. She often speaks in African languages I couldn’t begin to comprehend—Zulu and Suto, as I understand it, though Hakuna Matata is Swahili, I think—but nonetheless she gets her point across all with a depth of emotion that seems to connect with everyone no matter what your native tongue may be.

That’s the beauty of the performing arts, the communication of ideas in ways that bridge barriers of any kind. You don’t have to speak Suto to understand what’s going on. You very likely could enjoy THE LION KING musical even if you don’t speak any English. There are layers of complexity, depths of emotion, and immense joy in THE LION KING, and even if you’ve seen it on one of the several tour stops it’s made previously, you’ll find something new to enjoy every time you see it again, some little nuance of the gazelle puppets or a particularly excellent performance such as Mukelisiwe Goba gave on this night. It’s one of the hottest tickets in live theatre everywhere it goes, somake like a lion and pounce on your tickets without delay. Visit to see if there are any left for the St. Louis engagement, running through May 7, 2017, and for more on this amazing tour. Hakuna Matata! 

5.0 / 5.0