Elton John, Tim Rice, Irene Mecchi
Palace Theatre, Manchester
October 27, 2022-March 11, 2023; 2hrs 30min
Disney’s The Lion King musical is a cultural phenomenon and a theatrical tour de force. On Broadway
since 1997 and now celebrating its 25th anniversary, its current Manchester run has been extended more than once and now runs until March 11 to meet demand – an incredible stay for one leg of the UK tour.
The show is undeniably special: at once derivative and unique, generic and beyond genre.
It is, of course, a triumph of collaborative practice. The sheer volume of names in the programme,
and the strength of creators from across the globe explored in the impressively glossy souvenir
brochure, give us an idea of the ground-breaking and extensive work that went into this incredible production.
As lessons in adaptation go, this show is a masterclass in so many ways. How on earth do you recreate the magic and huge success of the Disney animation on stage? It seems so impossible that producer Peter Schneider considered it, at one point, to be "the worst idea I have ever had".
The answer was to do something completely different – namely to hire a non-commercial director and designer, Julie Taymor.
Taymor is the creative mind behind the spectacular masks, costumes
and puppets of the piece. A true visionary, she reimagined Disney’s version of the savanna and its
animal inhabitants for a stage adaptation that is ground-breakingly theatrical.
With Caribbean choreographer Garth Fagan’s leaping gazelles and prowling lionesses, and composer Lebo M’s African choral writing – enhancing the iconic songs from the movie by Elton John and Tim Rice – these
elements create, without time or specific place, a thoroughly majestic pan-Africa of the imagination.
The most spectacular scenes are without doubt the most successful. The Circle of Life opening sees animals and puppeteers processing up the aisles. The look on my 11-year-old’s face as a nine-foot elephant brushed past her might almost have been worth the ticket price alone. Not just animals either; later the grasslands are represented by performers in costumes that creep into puppetry, with
choreography inspired by nature and globally diverse styles of dance. The very best moments could perhaps be spectacular ballet theatre.
The lioness hunt elevates the function of female characters and power en masse. And the prevalence of actors and creators of colour in this African story perhaps creates a new social balance in the work of the theatre that we have struggle to find elsewhere. South African composer Lebo M has powerfully likened his conception of Mufasa to Nelson Mandela, and broader struggles in Africa.
And yet there are issues. Cast for dance, lead voices are occasionally less majestic than we might imagine. Dramaturgically, perhaps the architecture of the animated film was not reshaped enough, and there is often just too much story going on. The scenography just needs more space to breathe for a full appreciation of the technical beauty.
Comedy Disney characters, while frequently hilarious, are thrust awkwardly into a scene following a mood of awe and wonder created by ensemble choreography and design. And the life events of the story, such as the death of King Mufasa, just do not hold the emotional weight they really should.
Disney reveals its signature style sometimes in contrast, rather than synergy, with the Taymor magic.
Or am I being too harsh? Maybe. With The Lion King, Disney stepped away, in part, from direct
recreation and tried something else, lending its commerciality to an innovative kind of theatrical
production that retains the Disney signature combined with visionary style.
Here is the wonder of the stage, at its most spectacular and very best, combined with the comfort of something familiar.
If you like beautiful theatre and you like Disney, this show is certainly for you.
More info and tickets here