It's a big year for Disney's The Lion King. The likes of Beyoncé, Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor starred in the brand new live-action version of the film, which was released earlier this year. While in London, The Lion King gears up to celebrate 20 years since it arrived – on 19 October 1999 – at the Lyceum Theatre. And now, in Bristol, a new UK and Ireland tour begins. It's only the second ever tour the show has embarked upon in this country and excitement surrounding it has been palpable.
Even after 20 years, I am happy to report that The Lion King is very much intact; the behemoth of a musical still has the power and charm to delight audiences of all ages. Watching it now, it feels even more remarkable that Disney happily went along with director Julie Taymor's re-envisaging of the original animated movie. Embellishing the story with the use of several forms of puppetry, astonishing costumes and traditional African-style song, the musical is something quite different from the film.
Those often garishly-bright costumes and puppetry are all designed by Taymor, along with Michael Curry, and they are the main attractions of this show. A herd of gazelles is represented by a series of models on a moving cart, giraffes by actors on ridiculously high stilts with headdresses, while birds majestically whizz around the audience's heads, manipulated from sticks held by performers. It adds up to a glorious cacophony of movement and colour with a real sense of uniqueness. The show's first scene, on Pride Rock where "The Circle of Life" rings out and huge elephants trundle down the theatre aisles, remains one of the most magical in musical theatre.
The score also refuses to simply be characterised by Elton John and Tim Rice's original music and lyrics. Lebo M's African rhythms dominate, from the funeral song "Nao Tse Tsa" to the language in "Shadowlands"; many of these numbers are wilfully independent of the songs you're likely to recognise from the movie. Although those much-loved tunes are still there, performed here in vivid surround-sound by an ensemble of excellent singers, superb percussionists (Jack Fawcett, Matt Arnold, Atanas Dochev and Jack McCarthy) and a to-die-for orchestra, led by conductor Jonathan Gill.
Really, the music, costumes and puppets are what The Lion King is all about. Many will know the story of the young lion cub Simba, next in line to be king, who is manipulated by his evil uncle scar so that he flees his responsibilities and makes friends with a wise-cracking warthog and a meerkat, far from his family. That Hamlet-inspired story is all there, but the book has many weak spots, with the dialogue often sounding a little cardboard cut-out and the second act bloated. Thandazile Soni outshines most of the touring cast as a cheeky Rafiki, with the rest of the troupe all working exceptionally hard (the phrase triple threat is entirely inadequate to describe any of them: quintuple-threat?) to make sure the technical aspects come off, but in doing so they neglect a little of the story's heart.
But these are things you can absolutely forgive when you witness rousing numbers such as "Be Prepared" – performed by an army of hyenas, and brilliantly choreographed by Garth Fagan. In fact, watching the way Taymor stages a buffalo stampede should be enough entertainment for one night in the theatre alone. Those scenes just keep on coming. And judging by this production, they will continue to. Here's to the next 20 years.