BY JEFF LEVENE
As a burnt orange sun rises on the backdrop of a sapphire sky and a single lone soaring voice gleeful cry echoes across the stage in Swahili, one can look side to side to watch as audiences crumple into helpless waves of nostalgia and beauty-induced weeping. Needless to say, Disney’s “The Lion King” is once more gracing the Peace Center.
Blending the beloved cast of characters from the 1994 Disney Animated classic with a carnival of colorful creature costumes, African rhythmic dance, and harmonies, the show is a festival of sights and sounds for all ages.
Based on nostalgia alone, numbers like “Hakuna Matata”, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight, and of course the legendary “Circle of Life” will keep the kids (including your inner child) invested. But even so, while some of the “The Lion King’s” more iconic numbers may not offer interpretations quite as familiarly grand as in the movie, it is the show’s utilization of African artistry and ancestry that drive the unmatchable sense of majesty and magical bewilderment.
In short numbers between plot driven scenes, cast members offer interpretive dance and harmonious chants depicting day to day life on the Serengeti as well as showcase unique original score compositions turned musical numbers. And each of these further showcases the show’s iconic puppetry, as audiences are constantly surrounded by prancing and dancing wildlife, including marionette cheetahs stalking herds of stilted giraffes, to parades of elephants, rhinoceros and gazelles, stampeding through the aisles of the theatre. And this sense of awe and bewilderment all culminates with power-house vocal performances in the show’s original numbers.
Gerald Ramsey’s Mufasa, provides an intimate look into a multifaceted king of power, contemplation, joy and fear in the thought-provoking and powerful “They Live in You”. Dashaun Young’s Simba in “Endless Night” offers gut-wrenchingly beautiful vocals, blending soft thoughtful whispers with desperate belts and reassured battle cries. And Nia Holloway as Nala soars with fierce drive in the hauntingly gorgeous “Shadowland.
The show has plenty of laughs along the way as well. Nick Cordlione’s Timon and Ben Lipstz Pumba bring plenty of bromantic chemistry to the dynamic (and oft flatulent) duo, providing terrific timing and some gut-busting deadpan gags. Likewise, Drew Hirschfield’s Zazu is brilliantly British and prissy, offering a wild vocal spray of squawks, complaints, and in one scene, a delightfully unexpected and hilarious interpretation of a more recent famous Disney tune.
And Buyi Zama’s Rafiki drives the show from her first notes in “Circle of Life”. Zama’s range is incredible, from to her mournful wails at a king’s death in “Nao Tse Tsa”, extending to her maniacal glee at reuniting with Simba. And her mastery of not only Swahili, but a number of other Central and Southern African languages and dialects offers a a delightful authenticity down to each perfectly executed implosive. Her rich voice brings the show’s authenticity, very fittingly, full circle.
What really else is there to say about a show that has been self-deemed “The World’s Number One Musical”. After nearly two decades running, “The Lion King” has only a few minor changes and tweaks that offer somewhat unnecessary alterations to a show that, regardless, is still one of the biggest spectacles of modern theatre. Yet even so, for anyone in the audience from first time viewers, to those seeing it for the fifth or even seventeenth time, “The Lion King” remains as majestic and beautiful as ever.
“The Lion King”continues through June 25 at the Peace Center, 300 South Main St. in Greenville. Call (864) 467-3000 or visit www.peacecenter.org