Here comes a lion (king)…and it’s just as incredible as you might remember

Photo by Matthew Murphy

The Zulu opening of “The Circle of Life,” “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba,” translates to “Here comes a lion, Father.” Now that may seem a bit underwhelming when you first learn it, but if you step back from the whole thing you might see it in a different light. The awe and warning of the boy’s message—and remember, this is a young Zulu boy seeing a lion (and a leopard, for good measure!) intruding upon his space—segues in our minds to our own feelings about witnessing the incandescent spectacle of The Lion King, with Julie Taymor’s groundbreaking concept and Tony-winning direction, live on the stage. “Here comes a lion,” indeed!

The return to Chicago of the national touring company of The Lion King is a very welcome and exciting development; there is nothing else quite like this show, which has been performing on Broadway since 1997. Taymor’s decision to use giant puppets and to incorporate as much native African dance as possible infused the show with a life and an indelible emotional power all its own, taking what already was a great story—remember it is based on Hamlet—and making it utterly unforgettable.

This show will excite you from the first line that the mandrill Rafiki (an absolutely riveting Gugwana Dlamini) sings, a clarion call to all of the Pridelands animals to come to see the new lion cub, the son of the king. The opening parade of those assembling animals, many of which enter via the aisles, has to be seen to appreciate its grandeur (and its smaller touches; I loved the baby elephant puppet following after its mama). Once they all reach Pride Rock and King Mufasa, Queen Sarabi, and Rafiki present baby Simba to their multitude of subjects, in that tableau so familiar from the movie, Naymor and company have you completely. There are reasons for the long lines leading down Randolph Street as people wait calmly, despite the cold, to experience the uplifting joy of this show.

So what if a few of the film’s key moments (including the chaos leading to Scar’s death) lose a bit of their intensity in the stage translation or that Sarabi gets lost amid the extensive pride? (Diamond Essence White does get a lovely moment to stand up to the cruel Scar late in the play, though.) What is added more than makes up for that. Besides, The Lion King has so many brilliant elements that they simply overwhelm everything else.

Let’s start with a totally different kind of chaotic scene: Simba endangered by rampaging wildebeests. Here presented as a fluid combination of projection and live action, it makes the audience feel the danger the young cub is in. (Jaylen Lyndon Hunter is a remarkable Young Simba, able to play both the hubris and the callowness of the character and yet hold on to the audience’s sympathy.) Hunter, along with the equally strong Scarlett London Diviney as Young Nala—seriously, did they cast these roles based on similar middle names? doesn’t matter: both are excellent actors—develop a strong connection that easily extends itself when Darian Sanders and Khalifa White take over the roles as older versions of the characters. Sanders and White have natural chemistry (and great singing voices too) and easily bring these curious cubs into the adult world.

Hunter and Diviney find their young characters in a pickle when Scar (a totally slimy Peter Hargrave) gets them caught by hyenas in a place that Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey, who gives this character the powerful and regal qualities it requires) had forbidden them to be. The trio of Hyenas loyal to Scar (Daniela Cobb, Forest VanDyke, and Robbie Swift, all of whom are hilarious in these roles yet maintain enough of the element of danger to make their final scene with Scar play beautifully) threatens them, chasing them around the set and trying to eat them. Of course, Mufasa steps in to save the day, leading to one of the most tender moments of the show, “They Live in You,” in which the king convinces his cub that he and their ancestors will always be watching over him.

Comic relief (besides the hyenas) is provided by Zazu (Nick LaMedica), Mufasa’s “majordomo,” a hornbill whose British stiffness contrasts well with, well, um, everything else that is going on, and by Puumba (John E. Brady) and Timon (Tony Freeman), who bring the animated warthog and meerkat (whose life philosophy is “Hakuna Matata” or “No worries”) to life with performances perfectly calibrated to tickle the funny bones of those who know the film (whether they are children or simply want to be), which is, of course, almost everyone in the audience.

There is so much to see on the stage—all of the vibrant animals, the vast elephant graveyard, clever puppet projections, incredible dancing, the giant Oz-like face of Mufasa assembling itself before our eyes, the beautiful swaying grasses, the birds and fireflies—that it isn’t remotely possible to mention them all. Suffice it to say that this is one of the most spectacularly imaginative productions you are ever likely to see. Whether you are a first-timer or can sing along with all of the movie’s Elton John/Tim Rice compositions, I don’t think it’s even possible not to enjoy this show.

Presented by Broadway in Chicago, The Lion King is playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W. Randolph St., Chicago). Tickets are available from Broadway In Chicago or at Ticketmaster; the show plays through Jan 14. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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