Hakuna matata. No worries. It may be the only point of overlap between Swahili and Aussie English. But The Lion King isn’t about differences, but universality. In these cynical times, it would be all too easy to go down the plughole of triteness, were it not for one thing. Writing. The Lion King benefits from what too few recent musicals do. Disney has made an investment in its writing. It has wit and carries important messages without any cloying obviousness. Most of this originated with the animated feature film, of 1994. Like so many musicals based on films, The Lion King suffers from a relative inability to recreate the fantastical achievable in moving-making. Nonetheless, The Lion King, partly through Disney’s massive finances, achieves this better than most musicals.
The test is not whether you’re four, but whether you’re 40 and can still be seduced by the yarn. Given that almost the entire opening night audience sprang to its feet in uproarious applause the moment the curtain hit the stage it seems that test is easily passed. Perhaps that’s why it’s been touring for 16 years already, has no less than ten concurrent productions running around the world, and has run continuously on Broadway since 1997. It ran in Sydney from 2003 to 2005 and now it’s back. It has made close to a billion bucks around the world.
But The Lion King has more on its side than mere money. Yes, there’s the writing: the book, by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, music by Elton John (which even by his standards he outdoes himself) and Tim Rice’s lyrics (few scan as well, or as cleverly). Mind you, not all of the augmentations, by others, are consistently up to their standard. Some lyrics disappoint with their lameness but are happily dwarfed by the grandeur of the big numbers. And none of the adults present, very many of whom would’ve most probably been weaned on The Lion King, seemed to give a toss about cool-or-not.
The other visionary here is director Julie Taymor, who is also costume designer. Often costume design is almost incidental, but here it’s pivotal and, even a crabby, old critic was prone to swoon at the unbridled imagination that’s been brought to bear. The engineering of lion’s heads, which fall into place when an actor bends forward, is just one of the feats of invention. And the outfits look fabulous: colour and character of a scale which rivals the capabilities of 90s movie animation.
Elephants parade down the aisles; birds circle overhead. It’s a jungle in there. Right in the thick of it, elevated to the left and right of the audience are two percussionists, with an array of African and other drums. Taymor extends the stage into the audience emulating the immersion of the cinematic experience. She took important symbolic decisions, early on, too. Such as changing Rafiki’s gender to female, as she looked around and saw no leading character that was other than male. And, as it turns out, Buyi Zama, the Sydney Rafiki, is one of the very best things about the new, local production: both an extraordinarily soulful, powerful singer and charismatic, deftly comical actor.
The standouts cast members right up there with the Nathan Lanes and Jeremy Ironses, are Cameron Goodall’s Zazu, Josh Quong Tart’s Scar, Jamie McGregor’s Timon, Russell Dykstra’s Pumbaa and the aforementioned Rafiki. Goodall manipulates his bird (if you’re Indonesian, you can laugh) with sensational dexterity and merges with his character, while remaining separate. I know. That sounds absurdly anachronistic, but it’s palpable in the theatre.
As far as blurring the boundaries between actor and puppet, McGregor is masterful as well. His Bronx shtick and timing is note-perfect too. And Dykstra was born to play the farting, incongruously adorable warthog. One can only but admire his big-hearted capacity to make oddballs a focus for outpourings of affection. Tart, meanwhile, has a way with evil genius and it’s ever so easy to revile his Scar. Rob Collins has an impossible brief really. Mufasa is a dry character and in the film, was voiced by James Earl Jones. How does one live up to that? Nonetheless, while an older man might’ve brought more gravitas, he does a capable job as the wise leader of the pride. Nick Afoa is a slow starter dramatically, but ramped-up to finish creditably and is a wonderful singer. Josslyn Hlenti makes for a dignified Nala. Ruvarashe Ngwenya, Terry Yeboah and Andre Jewson are hilarious as the hyenas. Young Simba and Young Nala are played by cute and talented kids (who’ll be shuffled with others, depending on performance times).
And if you’re a self-confessed snob with a pathological aversion to popular culture The Lion King still has much to offer. You can pretend not to chuckle at lame-arse lines, like “what’s a motto with you?!”, and relish those costumes, masks, the puppeteering; ten wayang kulit-informed shadowplay.
The Lion King, while not entirely convincing has, dare I say, good reason to harbour pride. But, for Christ’s sake, fix the murky sound. A live orchestra (and I wouldn’t have it any other way) is ostensibly wasted as, for much of the duration, it sounds as if it might be recorded. And, much as I love the Capitol, as my partner rightly observed, a bigger theatre, with a bigger stage, would work better. What’s on at The Lyric?
Mufasa: Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that and respect all the creatures, from crawling ant to leaping antelope.
Simba: But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?
Mufasa: Yes, Simba, but when we die, our bodies become the grass and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connnected, in the great Circle of Life.