The Lion King roars – most of the time
The musical beast reaches Ireland
Pride of place: Carol Stennett as Nala (left) and Nicholas Nkuna as Simba in ‘The Lion King’ at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
The Lion King
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin
Directed by Julie Taymor, the stage version of the 1994 film ‘The Lion King’ is a stunning, if slightly splintered, production. It opens with an enormously spectacular entrance, as a parade of life-size animals dance through the aisles towards the stage.
Taymor also designed the puppets and costumes for the animals that populate this human tale of filial loyalty, and she choreographs the actors’ movement so that the masks and mechanical limbs become an extension of the live body. The effect is breathtaking.
The first scene at Pride Rock marries the first recognisable strains of Elton John and Tim Rice’s ‘The Circle of Life’ with the African rhythms of ‘Nants’ Ingonyama’, sung by the shamanic mandrill Rafiki (the powerful Gugwana Dlamini) in the native South African language of Xhosa. The marriage works surprisingly well, but as the musical proceeds it privileges a more patchwork approach.
The big musical numbers – ‘Chow Down’, ‘Be Prepared’, ‘Shadowland’, ‘Hakuna Matata’ – draw on everything from 1980s electronic rock to Latin grooves, and from the spoken rhythms of reggae to generic pop, relying on the transitional ensemble scenes to bring the story’s African roots back to the fore.
This hotchpotch approach holds true with the puppets, too. Taymor’s original puppetry – imagine a fleet of elegant gazelles gliding through the air, driven by a tricycle, or playful shadows on the enormous canvas of the stage – is mixed with what are effectively recognisable cartoons come to life.
The characters of Timon and Pumbaa, for example, might have wandered straight from celluloid on to the stage, and George Rae and Mark Roper do good impressions of their cinematic counterparts. But the eyes of these puppets don’t move, and their limbs are rigid. They blend right in with the bright colours of the jungle scenes during Simba’s exile, but it makes the pared-back beauty of Pride Rock seem like a different universe.
This is a well-oiled touring production, and various adaptations that the company make to their performance at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre bring a freshness to its Dublin incarnation. The orchestra’s network of African drums, for example, is played from the boxes, which brings an intensity to the extensive percussion under the musical direction of Jon Ranger, as well as an added visual element.
It is a small change that enhances the production significantly, and another reminder that sometimes the simplest embellishments are the most effective.