Chances are you are familiar with the film version of Disney's The Lion King, including the snappy songs and meerkat-spouted one liners. The question is whether the live stage show playing at the Detroit Opera House through March 10th, 2013 will seem a little too familiar. As it turns out, the production manages to give theatergoers a nice mix of the old, the new and the innovative. This is mainly achieved through the staging of the show and the introduction of new songs, scenes, and jokes.
The Lion King follows the trials and tribulations of Simba, the heir to the lion-king throne. The musical starts with a major production number celebrating his birth. It then follows him as he deals with the political machinations of his uncle, Scar, a lion who will stop at nothing to obtain the crown for himself.
While the biggest difference between the movie and the stage play is in the staging of the show and the addition of scenes and songs, it is clear that many people in the cast were chosen because they could mimic their animated counterparts. Even so, there are several standouts within the cast, including
- Nala. Syndee Winters steals the show with a memorable voice and a memorable song, Shadowland. Her acting and dancing abilities also help to transform the choreography into something truly feline, even during scenes filled with dialogue.
- Simba. Jelani Remy has the voice, the dancing ability, the build, and the charisma that makes him a stand out on stage. At some points, he evened glistens, but this may be more the result of hard-earned sweat and a chest-baring costume.
- Rafiki. Aside from the fact Rafiki is played by a woman this time around, Buyi Zama, the actress has a style and delivery that makes the character her own. Of course, the fact that Zama has an amazing voice that transcends the chorus helps the character stand out as well.
The Lion King manages to present the majesty of the African savanna on a boxy, confining theater stage. This is mainly achieved through the use of color, light and shadow played against a series of backdrops, as well as dancers who stand in for some of the natural topography. For instance, the rolling grassland is created through the use of carefully-choreographed dancers wearing grass headdresses. Pride Rock is one of the few actual set pieces on stage, and even that big hunk of rock is wheeled on and off (and around) as needed.
The animals of the story – zebras, giraffes, birds, lions, etc. -- are made real to the audience through the use of costumes and Banraku puppetry. Not only are the costumes innovative and, in some cases, marvels of engineering, they are designed so that the audience can see the body language and facial expressions of the actors. Best of all, the audience gets an up-close-and-personal view when the cast parades down the the three main aisles.
Orchestrating the dancers that represent both the animals of the savanna and the savanna itself is a marvel of navigation; but at times the stage seems too small and the cast somewhat muddled together. The lack of space can sometimes make it hard to appreciate the choreography as it gets lost in the shuffle. That being said, choreography was used to great effect in several scenes, including the cat fight between Simba and Nala that was creatively simulated through throws and leaps.
A Little Editing
While there is little to complain about in this production, a couple of scenes felt like filler. For instance, a scene with Timon falling into a river made an interesting special effect but didn't add much otherwise. Another scene between Nala and Scar added depth to the plot by providing an explanation as to why Nala left her pride but was executed in a way that made Scar seem more pathetic than sinister.
Tips and Notes:
- Theater. The Detroit Opera House still has it in terms of elegance and comfort. Multiple entrances/aisles break up the crowds for seating and the lobby is beautiful. Several bars and concession areas help limit lines.
- Restrooms. The rest rooms are a little hard to find. You have to look sharp for signs and expect some stairs before reaching your destination. That being said, they are well managed in terms of traffic. Note: If you have to make a restroom stop during the show, you won't completely miss out as the sound is piped in.
- Parking. The Detroit Opera House provides valet parking. During The Lion King, the cost is $30. There are additional parking lots within easy walking distance of the theater, the closest of which (right across the street from the theater) charges only $10 and provided an easy in and out.
- Detroit. The area around the Detroit Opera House was thriving on a Friday night after the show. There were plenty of people milling around. In fact, there were lines for most of the restaurants in both the Harmonie Park and Greektown neighborhoods.