THE LION KING AT THE BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME
Theatre Run: Friday 28 June - Saturday 28 September 2013
Performance Reviewed: Friday 28 June (Opening Night)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Film to stage adaptations can be quite the challenge to get right. It may seem an obvious point that theatre and cinema are two wildly different mediums and creative forms, but it’s often overlooked in the hopes that merely replicating the images that we watched on-screen onto the stage will rekindle the same emotions, impact and fire in an audience. The opposite is a far easier and more liberating experience - the scope and breadth of film, the luxury of the edit and the canvas of cinematography can often open up a previously stage-bound tale to new sights and heights, yet so often film-to-theatre is a much bumpier process. Slavishly loyal adaptations fail to explore and utilise the unique strengths and opportunities of the medium or, sometimes worse, do so in horribly egregious and detrimental ways (see the recent Broadway failure of The Little Mermaid, another Disney offering).
Many will be familiar with the general story of The Lion King (and for those who aren’t, why not?!) but for those unacquainted, it depicts the story of boisterous young lion cub Simba, king of the Serengeti in-waiting, as he is guided by his father Mufasa (a Cleveland Cathnott) and eventually falls prey to the machinations of his embittered uncle Scar (a superbly insidious Stephen Carlile). Forced to flee his homelands in secret, he takes refuge with unlikely duo meerkat Timon (John Hasler, scene-stealing with aplomb) and warthog Pumbaa (Mark Roper uncannily channeling the movies' Ernie Sabella) in a tropical idyll, growing into adulthood (where portrayed by Nicholas Nkuna) until his past begins to catch up with him courtesy of childhood friend Nala (Carole Stennett) and wisened Mandrill-cum-shaman Rafiki (Gugwana Dlamini).
Bar some questionably modern side jokes thrown in here and there (DIY SOS, really?) the generally timeless story of the original movie remains intact, with some very welcome character and narrative embellishments seamlessly interwoven. We see a touch more of the friendship and respect between Zazu and Mufasa, for instance. Scar’s inferiority (and immortality) complex is a little more fleshed out, Nala’s decision to leave the pridelands and look for help is given more weight and reasoning, and whilst not all of the extra additions work (some of the Timon and Pumbaa added humour in the second Act for instance feels a little too cartoonish and detached) fans of the film will nonetheless appreciate the extra shade and development to the characters and story.
The same is true of the outstanding music and scoring, which takes the beloved, iconic numbers from the film, including the likes of ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight?’, ‘Hakuna Matata’, ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’ and of course rousing opener ‘Circle of Life’ and adds a number of equally impressive numbers, from new songs set to the original Hans Zimmer score (such as ‘Shadowland’) through to ‘He Lives In You’, a wonderfully anthemic piece so beautifully written and central to the stage production that it was incorporated as an incredibly effective opening to animated sequel The Lion King 2 which followed shortly after the musicals Broadway debut. The music remains as infectious, uplifting and spine-tingling as ever, and as mentioned the new songs for the most part sit perfectly amongst the more recognisable classics, with Hans Zimmers aforementioned Oscar-winning score proving to be a still-stunning accompaniment throughout.
What is equally dazzling about The Lion King, and particularly praiseworthy for this touring production, is just how masterfully and viscerally it celebrates both the African culture and soundscape as well as the craft and artistic strengths of musical theatre as a whole. Some superb and impressively creative puppetry, costume and set design evokes the sights of the Serengeti and the animals of the pridelands with a whimsy and invention that (fortunately) never strives for super-realism but rather finds a beautifully distinct and wonderfully characterful look and style all of its own, portrayed and performed by a company and ensemble who bring the animals and characters of this world to life with grace, conviction and enormous enthusiasm. Evocative choreography that bandies between being suitably animalistic and tribal, a far more integrated use of various native African languages and instrumentation; everything on offer cultivates such a strong sense of identity and originality that, as mentioned, even the Lion King movie failed to reach.
Some of the shows real highlights in terms of performances, however, undoubtedly stem from its villains. Daniel Norford, Gbemisola Ikumelo and Philip Oakland are hysterically memorable as Scar’s hyena lackeys Banzai, Shenzi and Ed respectively. Particular credit must go to the three actors for manning their fairly complicated puppets whilst still delivering vibrant, entertaining turns that somehow manage to be reminiscent of the characters from the film without resorting to outright imitation. Stephen Carlile, meanwhile, is a deliciously evil delight as the shows main antagonist Scar; a visually amazing yet terrifying mixture of puppetry, costume design and makeup work coupled with Carlile’s brilliantly theatrical performance that offers something of an enraged Richard E. Grant, and one which, whilst sacrificing any semblance of subtlety or restraint, is so gloriously malicious, over-the-top and sumptuously machiavellian that it becomes a captivating, scene-stealing masterclass of villainy.
I prefaced this review saying that so often the transition from screen to stage is a wobbly, ill-judged one that can be difficult to get right. The same can sometimes be said of shows going from a house venue in the West End or Broadway to subsequently moving on tour. With this, the first ever UK tour of The Lion King, all of these obstacles and many more have been overcome in sweeping, grandiose fashion. It is a timeless, epic slice of musical theatre from which all ages will doubtless find plenty to appreciate and enjoy. And for those who are unfamiliar with the stage adaptation, or musical theatre devouts who may be cynical at the thought of an animated film getting the stage treatment, don’t let yourselves be dissuaded - this is an ambitious, glorious celebration of the distinctive art form of musical theatre in and of itself. It does admittedly occasionally stumble a little with some of the more cinematic moments from the film (most notably it's action-packed finale) but the overall ambition and scale of the production as a whole is never anything less than admirable. Bursting with warmth, scale and an inimitable African spirit and heritage, The Lion King is deservedly one of the most successful and acclaimed musicals of all time and by some measure one of the most unmissable and majestic evenings of theatre you can experience in the Midlands this summer.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * * (5 out of 5 Stars)
THE LION KING is running at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Friday 28 June to Saturday 28 September 2013.
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