I SUPPOSE it’s just about possible that there might be a more thrillingly entertaining musical show in the world than The Lion King. If there is, I’ve certainly never seen it or even heard about it.
It is, of course, a show for all manner of adults and children, so alongside all the duty and guilt, redemption and girls stuff for critics to bang on about, you’ve got the endearing comic characters.
This is a spectacular entertainment that’s blessed with such an abundance of 'wow factor' that I simply cannot imagine that there’s anyone would not enjoy it, however curmudgeonly or 'agin' the Disney organization they may think they are.
Of course, it’s based on the hugely successful animated film and pretty much sticks to its plot. Hey, if it was good enough for Shakespeare…
But that’s just the beginning. The show’s masterstroke here is (or was) the inspired decision to get in Julie Taymor, a renowned creator of indisputably adult theatre and opera shows, as director when it was first mooted as a Broadway show back in the Nineties.
“A producer only needs one good idea in their life to be seen as successful and that was my lightning strike,” producer Thomas Schumacher happily admitted to me at the show’s launch.
There’s never been anything remotely fluffy about Taymor’s work (her film version of Titus Andronicus is one of the bloodiest I’ve ever seen, so parents might want to take care there) and she brought a fierce intelligence to that initial Broadway production that’s remained at the heart of this phenomenal show ever since.
Of course there are funny and sentimental bits, even quite a few fart jokes, but this is a family show in the best sense. It has real heart and soul, with a strong sense of morality and fun, it doesn’t talk down to its audience and it certainly doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator so beloved by grubby, money-grabbing producers.
The effects are jaw-dropping, and I defy anyone not to find themselves shaken and stirred by the opening ‘sunrise on the savannah’ scene where all the animals of the jungle gather to pay homage to Simba (Nicholas Nkuna), the new son of Lion King, Mufasa (Cleveland Cathnott) and his Queen, Sarabi.
But your astonishment comes not from technological trickery but at the remarkable inventiveness of the puppetry and choreography that brings these animals so marvelously to life.
It is, of course, a show for all manner of adults and children, so alongside all the duty and guilt, redemption and girl's stuff for critics to bang on about, you’ve got the endearing comic characters, like Mufasa’s hapless advisor Zazu (Meilyr Sion) and the comedy foils Timon (John Hasler), the wisecracking meerkat, and Pumbaa (Mark Roper), the big-hearted but whiffy warthog.
The show also doesn’t shy away from the dark side of life.
Simba’s wicked uncle Scar (Stephen Carlile) seems to have turned into a little bit more of a pantomime villain than I recall but there’s a real sense of peril here without which the ultimate triumph of good (I’m not giving anything away here, am I?) wouldn’t be half so powerful.
I’ve never been much of a fan of the mostly pallid Elton John and Tim Rice tunes from the film but even they sound better here, given a fresh context by invigoratingly African and often moving new music and lyrics from the likes of Lebo M and Mark Mancina.
The Manchester run has just been extended through to April, so if you haven’t been able to get tickets before, you’ve got a much better chance now. You really should try to see this show.
Palace Theatre, Oxford Road. Until 20 April 2013
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