by Mirianna la Grasta
Images credit: The Lion King
“Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba [Here comes a lion, Father] Sithi uhm ingonyama [Oh yes, it’s a lion].”
Intense, bright and warm colours pervade the Lyceum Theatre stage, West End, London. A chubby woman with African costume and features raises her arms and sings the most famous opening verses in the history of musical theatre: she plays the mandrill Rafiki.
The story of a little lion’s growth in the heart of the Pride Lands, Africa, is a timeless classic that will always teach people something new. Produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation, The Lion King debuted in 1994 as an animation movie. In 1997, its most creative development turned out to be a Broadway musical, directed by Julie Taymor and produced by Disney Theatrical Productions.
Since 1999, the combination of live music, extraordinary scenic design, original costumes, lights and acting is what gives uniqueness to the West End musical.
“Life isn’t fair, isn’t it?” says Rob Edwards’ Scar, in an embittered tone, when he acknowledges Simba’s birth. Scar is the typical antagonist that enlivens the story, breaking the initial equilibrium of the plot. But, as the loyal Zazu, Mufasa’s hornbill-majordomo, ironically argues: “There is one in every family, Sir, and they always manage to ruin special occasions.”
Simba, well interpreted first by the young Amir Wilson, and then by Jonathan Andrew Hume, symbolises the story of every human being during his growth, a universal story. The character’s peculiarity is his innocence, as well as his desire to discover the world that surrounds him, without taking into account the possible dangers of it. “I just can’t wait to be King”, composed by Elton John and written by Tim Rice, is the most captivating and joyful piece of the musical soundtrack. It is the piece that best describes the young Simba’s attitude towards a new and stranger world, and it also reminds the older audience of the light heartedness of childhood.
With three Molières and two Laurence Oliviers, the West End production shows its mettle in costume, music and lighting design.
The director and costume designer Julie Taymor, has the ability to reproduce incredible animal-shaped costumes, in which the actor’s body is perfectly visible: by doing this, she underlines the humanity that lies in The Lion King’s characters, and puts the audience in direct contact with them. The masks worn by the main characters have particular African style and colours, while some other actors, such as the ones playing Zazu, Timon and Pumbaa, wear or control ingenious puppets, designed to suit their character.
“One by one”, the performance that opens the second act, is the musical masterpiece. Written and arranged especially for the Broadway musical, by the South African Lebohang Morake, it leaves the public amazed. Seeking a direct contact with the public, this piece combines the afro rhythms, the warmth of the choir’s voices, a wonderful and coloured scenic design, and a tireless tribal dance. Moreover, the presence of two brilliant afro drummers, playing live music, conveys strength and rhythm to both music pieces and spoken parts. Their performance not only carries the audience through the soundtrack, but it also gives them the rhythm of everyday life.
The whole musical production acquires a certain deep sense and power thanks to Donald Holder’s lighting design. The latter, is the best part of the scenic design and suits every single scene in an accurate way. From the very first scene the succession of orange and blue lights, with all their shades, infuses an equatorial and tropical scent in the theatre, and surrenders the audience in a primordial and wonderful Africa.
But The Lion King is not just costumes, music and scenes. Acting plays a vital role in the musical. Through an excellent performance, the actors are able to teach their little and older audience the value of balance and respect, love and emotions, family and friends. From the very beginning, Mufasa, the Lion King, teaches his son Simba how to understand the balance of nature and the respect of all creatures, because everyone is connected in the “great circle of life”. The respect of family and obedience are two other important lessons
to bear in mind for the little Simba.
A night-blue sky, full of stars, will be the setting for a much greater lesson. “We’ll always be together, right?”, asks a naive Simba to his father. The stars seem to be the answer to Simba’s question and, by extension, to the people: whenever he feels alone, Mufasa says, he should not worry of facing the life’s difficulties, because the stars, “the great kings of the past”, will always guide him.
Together with the family, the musical highlights the importance of friendship. “When the world turns its back to you, you gotta do the same!”, argue enthusiastically Timon and Pumbaa. Two strangers, a fun duo, will change Simba’s life forever, and will bring his light heartedness back to life. Thanks to a confident meerkat and a clumsy warthog, Simba will regain confidence and happiness in his life. He will grow following a new motto, that will give him the strength to fight against what has ruined him: “Hakuna matata! It means no worries!”