By Manning Harris
It just doesn’t get any grander than this.
At the opening night performance of “The Lion King” in its Fox Theatre debut, the anticipation of experiencing this great show was so high that when the house lights dimmed after the customary announcement of “no cameras or cell phones,” the sold-out audience burst into applause.
That was a first for this viewer; I’d seen that happen before big name concerts, but never at a live theatre production.
But nothing about “The Lion King” is ordinary. It’s the fourth longest-running show in Broadway history (it opened in late 1997) and the first show to gross more than $1 billion. It will run here through April 27. To say that tickets are hard to come by is putting it mildly. Try googling Lion King Atlanta and various ticket agencies will pop up. I cannot vouch for the legitimacy of these; but one can always try the Fox website or better still, go to the box office. Good luck.
You’ll notice I’ve said nothing yet about the show or the plot. After the movie and the Broadway production, “The Lion King” has entered the cultural zeitgeist; even if you’ve never seen it, you know quite a bit about it. It’s not only still running on Broadway; it usually vies with “Wicked” or “The Book of Mormon” as the top grossing show of the week—after 16 years.
So how is it possible that the performance I saw Saturday night was as fresh, sharp, beautiful, and moving as anything I’ve ever seen at the Fox? I must say that one is filled with gratitude to the producers, directors, stage managers, orchestra, and of course the performers of this phenomenal show for keeping it in mint condition. By the way, I’m also grateful for my great seats; an unexpected joy.
The opening ten minutes are pure magic, unsurpassed in musical theatre. As Rafiki, the mandrill, in her great trumpet of a voice, calls the African animals to come forth to Pride Rock, and zebras, lions, birds, hyenas, and a majestic elephant all come lumbering down the aisles, it is truly goose bump time. Rafiki (Brown Lindiwe Mkhize) begins her call in Zulu, then switches over to English for “Circle of Life.” As the New York Times wrote in 1997, “There is simply nothing else like it.”
Mufasa (L. Stephen Taylor), the Lion King, instructs his small son Simba (Jordan A. Hall) that he will one day be king of the Pride Lands, but Simba must not stray beyond the boundaries of the Pride Lands. Mufasa is oblivious to the murderous envy of his own brother, Scar (Patrick R. Brown), who tells Simba about the fascinating elephant graveyard that he really should visit.
It doesn’t take long for the various archetypes of the narrative to become apparent to the viewer (such as the Cain and Abel story). Perhaps this explains in part the appeal for all ages this show has. There were children present at the performance I attended, but the vast majority were adults.
Zazu (Andrew Gorell), a hornbill, is Mufasa’s advisor and self-styled “major-domo.” There are Sarabi (Tryphena Wade), Young Nala (Nya Cymone Carter), Pumbaa the warthog (Ben Lipitz), the grown Simba and Nala (Ben Lipitz and Jelani Remy). It’s a large and brilliant cast.
You know the names of some of “The Lion King’s” creators: music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice (there is also additional music); choreography by Garth Fagan; and the name most associated with the creation of the show, Julie Taymor. She not only directed, but also designed the costumes, masks, and puppets, and wrote some additional music. With this one show, her place in theatre history is assured.
If you already have a ticket for “The Lion King,” consider yourself blessed. Do not think this show is only for children and you are above it all; a huge mistake. I haven’t mentioned how gloriously beautiful the show is to look at; or how funny and moving it is. Just go—it’s the greatest ever.
For more information, visit foxtheatre.org.