I don’t usually find myself in the audience of a show that’s been seen by 70 million people worldwide and does not count myself among them. Prior to opening night of Broadway San Jose’s touring production, somehow, The Lion King had eluded me for years. Despite my complete love for Africa since I was a child (I grew up on nature shows, my room as a teen was totally decked out in safari decor, and I spent nearly a month travelling the South Western part of the continent in 2010) I had never managed to see this ground (and record) breaking show live. Well, I’m in the club now, and glad I had the chance to be indoctrinated for sure.
The stage magic at the core of the production concept comes together in phenomenally creative, immersive and exceptionally effective ways from the very top show. On the grandest of scales and almost hidden in the minutest of details, the show is an absolute work of art. It’s also something you really have to see and experience for yourself to be sure it’s even real. I’m sure over the years everything that could have possibly be said about the show has probably been said, but I’m certain there’s no possible way to truly articulate the way the first 10 minutes of the show captures your heart and completely commandeer your senses. How can you describe what it feels like to have your inner child break through your adult exterior? How can you articulate the awe that reverberates through a theater as 2,600 people breathe in at once, hold it, and release simultaneously. How can you fairly communicate in words what it’s like to feel such enchantment and joy? I wager you can’t and even having seen clips and heard the music prior, nothing seems adequate preparation for the beginning of this show.
The ingenuity of how all the pieces work is really astounding and I appreciated (and was very moved) by the highest level of theatrical stage craft present in every technical element. It was an original at the time of its launch and it remains a great example of cohesive vision and brilliant technical execution of that vision. It’s all a very special package and the costumes, lighting and puppetry of the show honestly outshine (and I’d argue even intentionally so in some cases) the cast talent in many cases. It’s a damn good cast too with their vocals, characters and movements clearly contributing a large part to the illusion. But, I had a hard time getting past the shiny flash and bang for a substantial percentage of it. The spectacle is good, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se.
The hardest part for me is that the highs are so impossibly high that consequently, the slower, less elaborate moments unfortunately feel a bit flat. With each soliloquy I felt the momentum slow too much for me (particularly in the second act). It’s like a scoop of the most amazing ice cream which proves absolutely heavenly on a hot day. The second, third, and 4th scoop, are still just as good from an artisanal perspective, it’s just that the impact of that art is dwarfed by that first taste of perfection.
From a plot expectation, while all the characters and some of the songs from the original film are present, certainly don’t expect the movie. The variation here is pretty extensive, which is really neither a detriment nor a benefit in my opinion. There are a few slightly more adult jokes in the stage version to be sure and a “sexy hyena” interlude during one of the big dance numbers left me very bewildered and I’m not going to lie; a bit uncomfortable. Aside from the shirtless Chippendale-esque sequence, the hyenas still get a pretty unfair rap (a really negative stereotype from my perspective that just never seemed just or necessary to the story) but the puns and punchlines are still delightfully groan-worthy.
I will say, while there wasn’t a weak voice among the cast, and conceptually I loved the appearance of cast members in the aisles and the balcony, the distance between singers certainly tested the impact of a completely blended harmony as well as the sound engineer. Paul Simon’s Graceland Album which featured Ladysmith Black Mambazo was a HUGE influence in my life, primarily because of the stories able to be told with resonating united voices, even where a language barrier was present. In the instances where cast integrated with audience, I personally would have opted for less intimacy and more harmonious unification vocally.
All in all, there were some beautifully tender moments, certainly big laughs, more than a couple of audible “that’s so cool” gasps, and yes… a few happy tears, even from me. It’s for sure a show to see. It’s a worthwhile experience that quite literally is unlike anything else I know out there. It clearly has stood the test of time for a reason. That being said, now that I’ve seen it, while it quite enjoyable, I don’t feel like I need to see it again and again. I don’t want for more. The show was a lot in many places and less in others and in the end… it was just enough. A lovely scoop of theatrical ice cream, The Lion King gets 4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a show that will amaze and entertain just about anyone on the planet at least once. The Lion King plays through October 4th at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.