Last night, despite the bitterly cold temperatures on the way (down to around minus two degrees), we took refuge in the Manchester Palace Theatre to catch the UK & Irish tour of The Lion King, and were transported with ease to the Savannah for a wonderful two and a half hours of African bliss!
My history with The Lion King (the musical) goes right the way back to 1997, when the show first opened on Broadway, and, at twelve years old, I stayed up until midnight to watch an edition of the South Bank Show which focused on the opening, and what I saw truly blew me away! Over half a life time on, and the episode still remains seared in my brain, and I am pleased to report that fifteen years on, The Lion King is still as fresh, cutting edge, and magical as ever, despite it seeing very few changes since, and this is true testament, in my opinion, to the genius of Julie Taymor!
In terms of the touring production itself, I am going to declare right from the off, that this is twice as good as the West End production (which in itself is amazing, have seen it myself around ten times – it’s my major geek out musical!).
With the touring production, you’ve got costumes and sets that look fantastic, and they have not scrimped one iota, despite the touring status – all of the sets, mechanics, and costumes are exactly as you’d find them in the West End (hurrah for Disney Theatrical’s very very tight grip on uniformity in productions) – and I have to say, this is the first production that I have ever seen to do this in all my years of theatre going.
I don’t want to ruin too much of the surprise, but in ‘Circle of Life’, when the giraffes and elephant appear, the audience reaction was absolutely electric – the theatre totally went ‘off’. It is amazing that this show can still have this reaction – and that costumes that were designed so long ago, still have the power to inspire and evoke this reaction. The opening number near enough got a standing ovation, and people were absolutely screaming with delight. It was genuinely a pleasure to be sat in the audience at this point, and I would urge people to book in for the stalls if at all possible so that you too can experience the same magical reaction.
Back in February 2012 I was very fortunate enough to be invited to the press launch for this event, and I’ve been crazy excited for this show arriving in Manchester ever since – as a massive The Lion King geek, it was great to get the full inside show info from Disney Theatrical and ATG Theatres!
Interestingly, they’ve made a few changes for the touring production, the biggest being that Zazu (played by Welsh actor, Meilyr Sion) now comes from Glasgow, instead of being a classically ‘refined’ English gentleman (I can only assume that this is because they’re not bound to an international audience, like the West End production is, and so they’ve just tried to appeal to a more localised audience). Either way, I wasn’t so much a fan of this change, but the regional audience did seem to appreciate it, and ultimately, it wasn’t horrendous. My only other minor cast niggles were that I didn’t find Scar (Stephen Carlile) to be hard enough in intonation to be seen as truly ferocious, and that Mufassa (Cleveland Cathnott) would have perhaps benefitted from a deeper, richer and ultimately older, singing voice. What I would very much like to add, however, is that these small points that I have made in no way affected my enjoyment of the show, and that I found that all performances turned in by everyone involved to be of outstanding quality, from very accomplished actors. They’re merely points of personal preference coming from an overly critical fanboy!
The one thing that the West End production has always lacked are good kids (sorry Mums!). Usually, in the West End, the kids cannot act for toffee and their singing voices are pretty dire. However, with the touring production, I was absolutely blown away by Young Simba (Daniel Daszek-Green) and Young Nala (Sisanda Monakail), who absolutely nailed their roles down to a T! These roles do change nightly, and so you tend to get different kids appearing on different nights of the week, but I do hope that the same is true of all the other pairings too.
Rafiki is an amazing role, and accomplished actor, Gugwana Dlamini, absolutely sold it to us, without doubt, my favourite of all the performers that I have seen in this role. Nicholas Nkuna makes a solid turn as Adult Simba and, for me, Carole Stennett’s Adult Nala absolutely hit me right between the eyes (but then I am a little biased in that respect – Nala’s coming of age song ‘Shadowland’ is my absolute favourite musical theatre song EVER!).
Below is what, for me, is the definitive version of ‘Shadowland’, performed by the original Broadway cast, which had the sensational Heather Headley (currently opening in The Bodyguard, Adelphi Theatre – London) in the role of Adult Nala.
A massive shout out should also go to the phenomenal ensemble and those characters which I have also not picked out in this review. Drawing from all four corners of the globe, this truly international quality touring cast is perhaps the best Company that I’ve had the pleasure to see/hear since the 1997 Broadway Original Cast recording was released!
The only thing that I do really miss, is Zazu’s song – ‘The Morning Report’, which got cut from the worldwide productions in June 2010 as part of a 9 minute overall reduction in the show. If you didn’t know that it existed, you probably wouldn’t miss it – but for hardcore Disney and Musical geeks like me, it is a crying shame in my opinion! I can see why it went (as there is a lot of build up to get through before you get to the stampede etc), but it was a great scene piece! I’ve also noticed that the script in this production seems to stick a little more to the movie version than I remember it doing previously, which is not a bad thing.
A special mention should also go out to the sound design team on the production, which was absolutely divine, and made great use of the surround sound opportunity at the Manchester Palace Theatre. We really felt enveloped by the sound created by the musicians, both in the pit, and the percussionists out in the first level boxes.
I could go on for hours about just how amazing this production is, but I shall instead just finish off by imploring you to PLEASE go and see this show. It is staying in Manchester for a colossal five months (now through to the middle of April 2013, following a newly announced two week extension – which, if you’re reading this in early December, would definitely be the time to look at to try to snap up the better tickets, as the other dates have been picked over for several months now).
It may appear a little steep in terms of regional ticket pricing, but I guarantee you that this is a West End quality production, and that it is something that will stay with you, and your family forever! Please, do not be tempted to hold out for discounts etc – experience tells me that this show will probably not have any at all – and for this show, I’d say that the better the seat, the more immersive the experience.
The Lion King is playing at the Manchester Palace Theatre until 20th April 2013.
The run time is around 2 hours and 30 minutes, including an interval (which, if you’re clock watching, comes immediately after the song ‘Hakuna Matata’).
Disney recommend that the show is suitable for children aged 6 years and over.
After playing in Manchester, the tour continues in Dublin, before returning to the UK and heading over to Birmingham.
All ticketing information, including the very latest ticket availability information, and any newly announced venues, can be found on the official Disney Theatrical/The Lion King The Musical webpage.
My tweets from the night:
Not that we have been here fifteen years – just conceptually still the same 1997 show that hasn't dated one iota – kudos Julie Taymor!—
Gari Davies (@DarkAeon) December 01, 2012
Humans are home and have insisted on recreating the Circle of Life from Lion King. I am Simba, Max is a giraffe and Gari a rhino. FFS! Gays!—
Fudge The Cat (@fudge_cat) December 01, 2012
If you have Spotify, you can hit up the OBC right from here: