Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: 'The Lion King' Musical

(Photo Source: Disney)
This year, my reviews have been far and few between. So as we head into the final weeks of the year, I better continue my catch-up, so here's another one...

I have to start off by saying this:
The Lion King is my favorite animated Disney movie of all time. (I don't count Pixar in there because even though Disney owns Pixar, Pixar is not Disney; they're two separate entities when it comes to their movies.)

And I guess I didn't realize that it was until the movie was released in 3D a few years ago and I had this urge to go see it. Why would I pay to go see a movie that's been around for 20 years (has it really been 20 years? wow!). Yes, the 3D aspect is part of the appeal, but there was something about this movie that made me want to go see it. Other Disney and Pixar movies were re-released in 3D, but I didn't see those.

So I'm sitting there in the theater with my 3D glasses on and the movie begins. And it hits me right from the very first second when that "Naaaaaaa...." part of the music starts. The Lion King is one of the movies that I grew up with. It came out in the '90s, and I was a '90s kid, so that tieback to my childhood is a big reason why this movie has a special place in my heart.

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That takes us to the stage production. I've wanted to see the musical for years. (In fact, there are two musicals that I've had on my list of shows to see, this and Wicked--if I only see those and nothing else, I'll be happy.) So when I found out it was coming to Seattle, I was ecstatic. I just had to see it. And I did.

The Lion King musical is even better than I could have imagined. You can see clips of it online or if they perform on a TV show, but you have to see it in person to really experience it.

The show begins with the expected "Naaaaaaa...." to start off "Circle of Life" and it hit me just as strongly as it did when I saw the re-release in the theater. Then the giraffes come out and other animals and the sun is coming up at the back of the stage -- and I'm soaking it all in. And the animals are not just on stage. They're coming up the aisles (including an elephant!), and there's even some up in the balcony where I was (there are people with these long poles with birds at the end, and they're swinging them around and around). You literally have to look everywhere to take it all in. You can't help but become a child in that moment.

And from there, the show continues moving along, and you realize how beautiful everything is. The costumes, most of all. The detail that has gone into every little part of this musical is astounding. After watching the 30-minute behind the scenes video included with the soundtrack, I appreciate it even more. Scar's lair, for example, with how the bones are displayed, really stands out since it doesn't look like any of the other sets.

And it's ingenious the various things they've done to make it all real. You don't pay attention to the fact that these are people in animal costumes, or people acting as grass moving around on the stage (which is beautifully done during "Grasslands Chant").

One of my favorite costumes is for the hyenas. The way they're constructed is really cool, with their heads hanging the way they do. And just as one of the hyenas in the movie is kinda loony, the same can be said of one of them in the musical.

Speaking of the costumes, the actors wearing the lion heads on their own heads like headresses is an ingenius way of presenting these animals/characters. With some of the animals, the actors are holding them up and moving them in a motion indicating that they're leaping, running, etc. For the gazelles, someone's pushing a bike-like contraption that has the animals moving on it when the wheels move. The actor bringing Zazu to life is not only carrying the bird and maneuvering him, but the costume he's wearing looks just like the bird, so it's like he's an extention of the bird. And I can't imagine being the ones who have to be the giraffes--that can't be comfortable.

I also loved Rafiki, who is pretty much completely different in the musical than in the movie. But it creates a new dynamic and a guiding force throughout the whole show. The woman who played Rafiki at our show--her voice was excellent.

Then you have Timon and Pumbaa, who are just as fun and lovable as in the movie. And I have to mention this: there was a kid a row or two in front of us to the left a bit who was dancing during "Hakuna Matata." The sets and costumes and choreography (everything, really) during this song, it's all put together perfectly, and I loved how vibrant the colors were.

As we all know, The Lion King takes place in Africa. And it seems like Africa's culture plays an even bigger role in the musical. From the music to the sets to the costumes, it's instilled in everything. And it seeed to me that some of the music was changed for the musical to infuse that culture even more, which makes it refreshing and gives it a slightly new take.

Some songs like "Grasslands Chant," Lioness Hunt," "One by One" and "Shadowland" I believe are new songs added for the musical, and they all are beautiful to listen to. (I might have gotten chills during "Shadowland.")

Because the African culture was infused even more into the musical's music, I think I like the Broadway versions of the songs better than the originals from the movie. By the way, I have listened to the soundtrack a lot ever since buying it.

When you're doing an animated movie, there's not a lot of limitations since it's animation. But with a stage production, how do you translate certain scenes or sequences? For The Lion King, what stands out for this is the stampede scene. As this part was getting closer, I was getting really curious how they were going to pull it off, but they crafted it brilliantly to make it look like the herd is stampeding, along with the buildup and the execution, no pun intended, of the plan to off Simba's father, Mufasa.

Put simply: director Julie Taymor is a genius. There is literally nothing bad I can say about The Lion King musical. It is truly a work of art from start to finish. And if I could've gone back to see it the next day and the day after that and the day after that, and on and on, I would have done so, it was that good. (Some day in the future if I get another chance to see it, I would love to.)

I said at the start of this review that The Lion King was one of two musicals I absolutely needed to see. Now that I've seen one, it's time to look forward to the other. Wicked will be coming to Seattle next summer, and you can be sure I'm not missing out on the chance to see it.

I Recommend: The Lion King Musical & Cast Recording

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