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After Two Decades 'The Lion King' still Roars

by Rita Kohn
September 18, 2018
Murat Theatre at Old National Centre
510 North New Jersey Street
Indianapolis, IN 46204-1517
877-686-5366
Rita Kohn, member: Dance Critics Association, Authors Guild, Dramatists Guild
The Lion King, fresh and vibrant in its second decade as a touring musical, opened the Fall 2018 season of Broadway Indianapolis at the Murat Theatre at Old National Centre, on Sept. 14 for a residency through Sept. 29, 2018.

Returning to Indianapolis after a ten-years hiatus, the audience for The Lion King represented a second generation bringing their children, if my conversations with surrounding seat-mates holds as a sampling of the whole. “I could hardly wait to see this,” confided a ten-year-old. “I’m just so excited.”
After intermission he returned to his seat well stocked with Lion King merchandise to add to what already is in the household from the Fall 2008 run when his Mother was in that audience. Ditto for the family in the seats in front of me, whose friends with seats elsewhere were stopping by and chatting as we waited for the appointed 8 p.m. curtain. From the conversations, I gathered gaining a seat at the aisle that’s an entry point for the Circle of Life made this family a focal point. They were instructed to report "what they’re like that close up."

At the dimming of lights everyone hustled to heir seats; instantaneously the orchestra filled the space and, as with one breath, we altogether were swept into the spectacle of the “Circle of Life”—a world of creatures pouring down the aisles, filling every inch of the stage. Thereafter nothing much mattered but the personification of family, love, hatred and ultimately redemption.

One can quibble over the production’s scientific exactness of life in a pride of lions and its relationship with the rest of their natural world, but that’s not been the point of either the 1994 Disney film or the 1997 stage musical. This incredibly up-close and personal production, based on an original storyline inspired “by the lives of Joseph and Moses, from the Bible, and William Shakespeare's Hamlet,” according to the Disney “Lion King” website, is targeted to how we in the seats personify four-legged, wingeds, swimmers, crawlers, burrowers, along with grassland and flora. The plentitude astounds in a lexicon from aardvark to zebra, with a fistful that most of us are hard put to identify.

What touches us is the symbiotic relationship between actor ad his/her ‘character’. Body posture, movement, attitude, speech fuse into a distinctive entity. It’s not just a herd, it’s a dozen personalities distinguished by subtle nuances. The genius is in the timing of events so nothing gives hint of being hurried. We’re aware of the backstage hustle for ensemble members and swings to change ‘costumes’ to convincingly deliver yet another characterization. We’re aware the ‘stars’ have to project a fully dimensional character, yet we look past the human face and body and ’see’ the mask, feel the joy, pain, love, betrayal, pride, disappointment. What is real is the emotion from the stage into the audience and back across the lights. There is no fourth wall. Suspension of disbelief is not required. We believe.

The cast in its entirety believes. They are as uniformly committed to being Scar, Mufasa, Timon and Pumbaa, as they are to embodying a flock of birds or a patch of grassland. There’s no small part. It’s 150% from start to finish. Opening a new tour means melding a new family. They look like they’ve been together since kindergarten, tapping into infectious zestful exuberance to give the last row the same fulsomeness as the first row.

A new tour also means adapting dialogue to the host city and the headlines of the day. The audience loves the localization, and the cast members don’t miss a beat connecting.

The singing is thrilling. The dancers embody the world-wide influences integrated into costumes, masks, settings and choreography, which in itself draws from folk, ballet, modern/contemporary, jazz and hip-hop. What we experience is a new dance vocabulary that turns the usual Broadway musical moves inside out and sideways. Yes, Ziegfeld dancers had to find a new center of gravity with those elaborate headdresses, but what do you do with tusks and huge headdresses? You design so no one gets knocked down. And how do you differentiate each lioness, or make a trio of hyenas both lovably funny and loathsome? Garth Fagan borrowed techniques from everyone and mixed them up for this amalgamation of a worldview of movement that is so at-one with the music they flow from and into each other. The animal kingdom takes on a life of its own.

The stage crew is spot on. Not easy when every theatre visited has its quirks and limitations. The orchestra and sound crew equally adapted to the acoustic challenges of the Murat Theatre.

The plot is more fulsome in act one; slower and laid-back in act two, yet the requisite task of the story is to provide a platform for the amazing theatricality of cast members becoming at-one with their representation of animals, birds, plants, reptiles and amphibians, insects, arachnids, invertebrates and fish. Lighting rivals the reality of sunrise, sunset, seasonal depths and passage of years. The scenic design creates non-stop wonderment.

We know the plot, yet knowing is not a spoiler because we’re honestly drawn into Mustafa’s disappointment over Simba failing to take seriously his appointed role, behaving instead like a,’play-lion,’ to coin a phrase And then we’re hopeful the transitions in size will be matched by a growth in responsible behavior. But it’s never humdrum; no matter how many times you’ve been in the audience you’re on the edge of the seat, pulling for Simba to choose a comeback to save the kingdom and ascend Pride Rock.

We are Simba—willy nilly traipsing through a laissez faire life until that moment of reckoning. The Circle of Life is ours, scrolling upward from depth-darkness into brilliant light. We are redeemed. For a brief moment we escape this most unsettling time in the life of our nationhood. Do we have a comeback Simba?

This production features Mark Campbell as “Scar,” Gerald Ramsey as “Mufasa,” Mukelisiwe Goba as “Rafiki,” Nick Cordileone as “Timon,” Greg Jackson as “Zazu,” Ben Lipitz as “Pumbaa,” Jared Dixon as “Simba,” Nia Holloway as “Nala,” Keith Bennett as “Banzai,” Martina Sykes as “Shenzi” and Robbie Swift as “Ed.”

The role of “Young Simba” is alternated between Joziyah Jean-Felix and Salahedin Safi and the role of “Young Nala” is alternated between Danielle W. Jalade and Gloria Manning.

The cast also includes: Derek Adams, Kayla Rose Aimable, Andrew Arrington, William John Austin, Eric Bean, Jr, Thabani Buthelezi, Sasha Caicedo, Chante Carmel, Sean Aaron Carmon, Kyle Robert Carter, Thembelihle Cele, Daniela Cobb, Erynn Marie Dickerson, Ntomb’khona Dlamini, Tony Freeman, Deidrea Halley, William James Jr., Kolin Jerron, Jane King, Brandon A. McCall, Christopher L. Mc Kenzie, Jr., Nhlanhla Ndlovu, Aaron Nelson, Christopher Sams, Jordan Samuels, Kaylin Seckel, Mpume Sikakane, Sadé Simmons, Sophia Stevens, Kevin Tate, Jennifer Theriot, Courtney Thomas, Shacura Wade, Zola Williams and Krystal Worrell.

Tickets for the Indianapolis run: at Ticketmaster.com/LionKingIndy, Clowes Memorial Hall, Old National Centre or by phone at 1-800-982-2787. VIP Ticket Packages, which include a prime seat location, a commemorative souvenir program and an exclusive merchandise item, are also available. Groups of 10 or more may reserve seating by calling 316-632-5183.

“After 20 landmark years on Broadway, THE LION KING continues ascendant as one of the most popular stage musicals in the world,” reads the promotional material, adding “Since its premiere on November 13, 1997, 25 global productions have been seen by more than 95 million people. Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions (under the direction of Thomas Schumacher), THE LION KING has made theatrical history with six productions worldwide running 15 or more years. Performed in eight different languages (Japanese, German, Korean, French, Dutch, Spanish, Mandarin and Portuguese), productions of THE LION KING can currently be seen on Broadway; London’s West End; Hamburg; Tokyo and Sapporo; Madrid; Scheveningen, Holland; Singapore; and on tour across North America, for a total of nine productions running concurrently across the globe. Having played over 100 cities in 20 countries on every continent except Antarctica, THE LION KING’s worldwide gross exceeds that of any film, Broadway show or other entertainment title in box office history.”

THE LION KING won six 1998 Tony Awards®: including Best Musical, Best Scenic Design (Richard Hudson), Best Costume Design (Julie Taymor), Best Lighting Design (Donald Holder), Best Choreography (Garth Fagan) and Best Direction of a Musical, along with 70+ major arts awards including: 1998 NY Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, the 1999 Grammy® for Best Musical Show Album, the 1999 Evening Standard Award for Theatrical Event of the Year and the 1999 Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Choreography and Best Costume Design.

Elton John and Tim Rice’s music from The Lion King animated film along with three new songs by John and Rice comprise the stage musical. Additional musical material is by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer; and music from "Rhythm of the Pride Lands," an album inspired by the original music in the film, written by Lebo M, Mark Mancina and Hans Zimmer.

“The resulting sound of THE LION KING is a fusion of Western popular music and the distinctive sounds and rhythms of Africa, ranging from the Academy Award®-winning song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” to the haunting ballad “Shadowland,” informs the promotional material. “The book has been adapted by Roger Allers, who co-directed The Lion King animated feature, and Irene Mecchi, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay. Other members of the creative team include: Michael Curry, who designed the masks and puppets with Taymor, Steve Canyon Kennedy (sound design), Michael Ward (hair and makeup design), John Stefaniuk (associate director), Marey Griffith (associate choreographer), Clement Ishmael (music supervisor) and Doc Zorthian (production supervisor). Anne Quart serves as co-producer.”

For more information worldwide, visit LionKing.com. Shows, dates, times, prices, and artists are subject to change. For a list of the species that fill the stage, go to: http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_species_seen_in_The_Lion_King
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