Julie Taymor's The Lion King has one of the most stunning openings to a musical that you will ever see. The rest of the show could never possibly live up to this, but it's remains an energetic, if earnest cash cow - which should add millions to the Disney coffers for many years to come.
On a cold, blustery and wet Manchester evening, the Palace Theatre is transformed into a sun kissed savannah. Fully realised four legged creatures walk down the aisles - stunning the audience with the dazzling costumes and superb movement by the brilliant actors. This is a show where detail is the key - these actors are not simply people in costumes - they have studied the animals and this invites you to believe.
Sure, the plot - basically Hamlet with animals - is often lost in the mix at the expense of the spectacle and the show does drag slightly whenever a song is not being performed. But with pitch perfect performers who inhabit the roles with panache- this expensive looking pantomime becomes weightier as a result.
Stephen Carlile's Scar is so good that I wanted him to get away with his dastardly deeds, Cleveland Cathnott's Mufasa is stoic, steely and has great stage presence. Gugwana Dlamini as mystical Baboon Rafiki is essentially Yoda she has a ball. Inexplicably - the bird Zazu is now from Glasgow but Meilyr Sion entertains the audience anyway. The trio of John Hasler, Mark Roper and Nicholas Nukuna as Timon, Pumba and adult Simba have great chemistry. And lastly, Auden Barnes and Donica Elliston provide contemporary turns as Young Simba and Nala.
Another great thing about this show is that the majority of the cast are Afro-Caribbean. "He Lives In You" has always been rousing but with superb harmonies and featuring performers from Jamaica, South Africa, Cuba and Bangkok - it feels authentic also. With so many shows filled with as much cultural diversity as an episode of Friends, this is a welcome relief.
Ultimately though, what stops this show from becoming a corporate and soulless piece is Taymor's vision. There is so much to see here that you may end up crooking your neck in case you miss something. From actors on stilts portraying the majestic movements of a giraffe to a group crying lionesses, the Lion King transports you to another world - devoid of Jimmy Savile stories and crucifying cuts to the economy.
It may be too long for little ones and fall a little flat during dialogue driven scenes, but with a cast adorned in costumes as warm and colourful as an African sky, superb vocals and enough eye popping moments to calm even the most excited child - The Lion King still roars.