'The Lion King' review: Disney's long running musical hit dazzles in Detroit
Courtesy of Broadway In Detroit
One of the highest grossing (and most expensive) stage productions of all time, Disney’s 25+ year musical hit “The Lion King” has landed in Detroit after a long Covid-induced hiatus and if you’ve never seen it, like this gobsmacked critic, there’s no time like present. Indeed, everything I’d heard prior to seeing the multi-million dollar ordeal, which is now set-up at The Detroit Opera House through February 20th, didn’t do the sheer spectacle and dazzle of the entire experience justice. Everyone knows “The Lion King” or have seen the animated film at least once in their lifetime, but it's another thing to actually see the iconic characters and Elton John and Tim Rice tunes spring to exoburnant life. I sat in my chair blown away by the artistry of the costumes and puppetry, the dexterity in the performers, and the immersiveness felt during the opening number “Circle of Life” which proved a cathartic experience on several levels.
Of course, we all know the tale: that of young Simba’s quest to become the eventual king of the Pride Land following in his father, Mufasa, footsteps. Original director Julie Taymor didn’t change much in terms of the narrative’s chronology aside from the welcome and refreshing choice to change Rafiki’s gender from male to female and the inclusion of new tunes to help fill the gaps. For perspective, the animated movie runs a brisk 90 minutes and the staged production clocks 2 hrs and 45 minutes with intermission. You’d never know it because the scene transitions and the immaculate production design are easy to get lost in. I was baffled at how the show seamlessly moved from Pride Rock to the Elephant Graveyards to the climactic death of, spoiler alert, Mufasa, without so much as blinking. The latter utilizes several creative techniques including forced perspective and a unique fly system to help sell the blow.
In addition to directing duties, Taymor is also the costume designer and considering Disney spares no expense when it comes to creating magic, everyone glistens. Makeup effects coordinated by Taymor and Michael Curry do major heavy lifting that help the performers embody their characters. None more so than Spencer Plachy’s villainous Scar who struts around like he owns the place. Other standouts included Ben Lipitz’ larger-than-life Pumbaa (yes he can still clear the Savannah after every meal!) Jurgen Hooper’s loyal Zazu; Kayla Cyphers' tough Nala; Darian Sanders’ stern Simba; Gugwana Dlamini’s corky Rafiki and youngsters Charlie Kahler and Kalandra Rhodes impress as Young Simba and Young Nala respectively.
Most of the actors carry major prosthetics or entire body casts around for the entirety of the show and it never impedes or becomes a distraction from their performance. Watching “The Lion King” felt like a transportation to another realm where the impossible was possible. There’s so much dissection and appreciation for the crew’s craftsmanship that couldn’t be contained in one review. Whether you’ve seen it a million times or looking to catch it for the first, “The Lion King” remains a timeless staple that hasn’t lost any of its luster or impact since it was first released almost three decades ago. Hakuna Matata!
THE LION KING plays at the Detroit Opera House through February 20th. Tickets can be purchased via Ticketmaster.