The first ever UK Tour of Disney’s legendary musical The Lion King enjoyed its official opening at The Bristol Hippodrome last night, to the delight of audience members young and old. From the very first bars of Elton John and Tim Rice’s ‘Circle of Life’ as a staggering array of brilliantly conceived and imaginatively constructed beasts make their way through the auditorium and gather on the stage to pay homage to the new born, and future king of the savannah, Simba, gasps of wonder and delight can be heard all around the theatre – and not just from the little theatre-goers either. From the outset you know you are in for a magical evening of Disney magic mixed with west end spectacle.
With an international cast of 52 performers, from 17 different countries, this premiere marks the first time that Julie Taymor’s celebrated production will have toured in the United Kingdom. And it is reassuringly familiar for those who have seen and love the London production. No paired down, budget touring version here – what you get is the full-on west end production, a feast of colourful costumes, glorious African rythyms and dance, and a good dollop of Disney schmaltz.
Expanded from and enriched by the 1994 original animated film, the African culture and beat has been brought to the fore by the addition of music and lyrics from Hans Zimmer, Lebo M, Jacques Loubelo, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Julie Taymor, whilst retaining the near-perfect score created for the film by John and Rice. Garth Fagan’s award-winning choreography, and the book by Irene Mecchi, give the beloved Disney tale a rich context and a heart which runs through the performance.
That only rarely does the show live up to the promise of the opening sequence is squarely down to the fact they set the bar so high with the ‘Circle of Life’ it is impossible to maintain that momentum throughout a long, 3 hour evening.
Leading the cast, Clevland Cathnott makes an impressive Mufasa, and Stephen Carlile a suitably sly and villainous Scar, with great support from Meilyr Sion (Zazu), Nicholas Nkuna (Simba), Carole Stennett (Nala) and Gugwana Dlamini (as the infectiously exuberant Rafiki). ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ (Nkuna and Stennett), ‘Shadowlands’ (Nkuna) and ‘They/He Lives in You’ (Cathnott, Dlamini and Nkuna) are all highlights from the score. John Hasler and Mark Roper are given the gift of playing Timon and Pumba, probably the best remembered and beloved characters from the film, and get the best of the comedy. Their rendition of ‘Hakuna Matata’ sends the crowd out for the interval with big silly grins and a bounce in their step.
A special mention must go to Auden Barnes and Donica Elliston as the young Simba and Nala – both little in stature but huge in stage presence, and who are very engaging, especially in their big number, ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’.
Perhaps the biggest stars of this show though are Julie Taymor’s costumes, and the ground breaking masks, co-designed with Michael Curry, which conjure the impression and the character of the animal, with movement and expression, but never disguise the human actor behind, allowing the full breadth of emotion to come through.
Stunning and awe-inspiring when it first exploded on to the stage back in the late 1990s, The Lion King has lost none of its impact, and this new tour provides a rare opportunity to see that full version out at larger venues around the country. Derived from a Disney movie yes and firmly aimed at the family audience, but this is one show that appeals to all ages - even unaccompanied adults like me - so you don’t have to borrow nephews and nieces to go and see it.
The Lion King plays at the Bristol Hippodrome until 17 November before heading up to Manchester for a 4 month run.