From the costumes to actors, ‘Lion King’ a play no one should miss

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PHILADELPHIA >> I’m not a critic. I don’t even try to tout I am.
But, as a late ‘80s baby growing up in the Disney-fied ‘90s, I can claim that I know “The Lion King” very, very well.
It was one of my favorite movies growing up and even now, as I approach 30, I will still sit down with a big bowl of popcorn and will pop in my 20th anniversary special edition DVD box set, complete with the so-so “The Lion King II” and the laughable “The Lion King 1½.”
I love the movie so much that my orange tabby cat is even named Simba.
Though it took me 18 years to finally see the musical production, when it came to Philadelphia as past of Broadway Philadelphia — in collaboration between the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and the Shubert Organization — there was no way I was going to miss it.
I had very high hopes for the production, playing at the Academy of Music, and it did not disappoint.
Directed by Julie Taymor with choreography from Garth Fagan, the show was absolutely seamless. I couldn’t point out a single error, flub, stumble or missed note.
Just as the movie did, the musical began with the rising sun over the Pride Lands with Rafiki (Tshidi Manye) singing “The Circle of Life.”
Animals begin appearing across the stage and down the aisles as the crowd awes at the colorful, creative costumes. I can still envision the mother elephant leading her baby, who is grasping the mother’s tail with her trunk, down the aisle and onto the stage.
Pride Rock, where baby Simba is first introduced, is not only a large prop, but one the actors can climb on and it has the ability to rotate around on the stage.
We’re very quickly introduced to all the characters, just as in the movie, with Zazu (Drew Hirshfield) and Mufasa (L. Steven Taylor) coming to interrogate Scar (Patrick R. Brown) on his lack of attendance at the ceremony.
Brown is a perfect match to play the evil brother, who was cast aside at becoming king with Simba’s birth. His voice so closely resembled that of Jeremy Irons that I had, at times, trouble remembering I was at a play and not a movie theater.
It was difficult to try and pick a favorite performer out of the bunch. Each had their own favorable qualities — from Manye’s clicks and squeaks while talking to Hirschfield impressive ability to become one with the Zazu puppet. But it’s hard to deny that Tré Jones as Young Simba and Alexandra Underwood as Young Nala stole the show during the first act.
Both young actors at just 11 years old were as flawless as the adults. And man, could both sing during “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.”
But just as good were their adult counterparts as Jelani Remy played Simba and Nia Holloway played Nala.
Both had an immediate chemistry on stage as the adult characters, flowing seamlessly together in the second act.

Jelani Remy as "Simba" and the ensemble in "He Lives in You" from THE LION KING National Tour.  Photo: Joan Marcus

Jelani Remy as “Simba” and the ensemble in “He Lives in You” from THE LION KING National Tour.
Photo: Joan Marcus

Just as a fair warning, there are some spoilers ahead for those of you who have somehow never seen the movie or know what happens.
Knowing the movie, I was curious beforehand how scenes such as Mufasa’s death and his subsequent return as ghostly figure in the sky to guide Simba would play out.
Once again, the play surprised me as they used a 3-D approach to Mufasa’s death, using a layered set to make the stage seem like the gorge Simba is trapped in during the wildebeest stampede. To show his actual death, Taylor climbs up the “wall” (presumably a ladder behind the set) and Scar launches him back into the gorge with Taylor harnessed and lowered to the stage floor.
With Mufasa’s return scene, I’m still quite baffled at how it was done.
I could make out cast members running onto the darkened stage with large prop pieces which, put together, formed Mufasa’s face. But the face stretched from almost floor to ceiling and I’m not quite sure what the pieces actually were or what people may have been standing on to reach the top part.
Either way, it was stunning, emotional scene, especially with the song “He Lives in You.”
If you are as big a fan as I am, I will warn you to bring some Kleenex. I will unabashedly admit that I let a few tears fall during Mufasa’s death and once again when Simba claims his rightful position as the Lion King.
One just can’t help but be amazed at the creative ways each costume, each character and each animal has.
The lines were almost word-for-word from the movie and even the best jokes were used, with some new ones made as well — my favorite being the “Let It Go” song reference from “Frozen” by Zazu.
Every memorable song was in place and featured some new ones as well, making me want to hop on Amazon and buy the soundtrack right now to have those.
This is absolutely a must-see for people of all ages.

IF YOU GO:  The show will run at the Academy of Music from now until June 14. Tickets can be purchased at the Kimmel Center and Academy of Music box offices, by phone at 215-731-3333 or online at kimmelcenter.org/broadway.
Contact Candice Monhollan at 610-235-2652.

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