Have you ever seen something so beautiful it makes you cry? That might be your reaction to the opening pageant of animals in Disney’s “The Lion King” musical, continuing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through March 26.
While the story of “The Lion King” (book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi) is essentially the same as the 1994 animated film—as well as the songs by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice—the story itself takes a back seat to the production’s luminous artistry.
Animals of the African savannah—loping giraffes, leaping gazelles, swooping birds, majestic elephants, and of course brave lions—are brought to graceful life by humans in textured and inventive costuming and masks (designed by Director Julie Taymor and Michael Curry).
Evocative scenic design by Richard Hudson, with lighting by Donald Holder, includes a shimmering sun rising and setting, a night sky full of stars, and grasses and rivers through which these animals traverse.
Amid them are the central characters surrounding Simba, a lion cub who must learn to take his place as ruler of the dominion and complete the “Circle of Life.”
Jaylen Lyndon Hunter as Young Simba at certain performances (alternating with Jordan Pendleton) is simply stellar in his delivery of lines, singing and movement—embodying Simba’s exuberant defiance of rules, captured in “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.”
Simba’s father Mufasa (a warmly regal Gerald Ramsey) has his paws full training his son for future kingship. It doesn’t help that Mufasa’s brother Scar (Peter Hargrave, seeming to relish his evil role) is manipulating Simba to ensure that Scar becomes ruler instead.
Makeup by Michael Ward shines in Scar’s chiseled feline facial features, supplemented by a lion mask that moves to cover his face when he crouches threateningly.
Prompted by Scar and with his friend Nala (Scarlett London Diviney alternating with Farrah Wilson)—along with Mufasa’s majordomo Zazu, a hornbill bird (energetically portrayed by Nick LaMedica)—Simba ventures past the boundaries of the lion kingdom to an elephant graveyard overrun with Scar’s minion hyenas (Martina Sykes, Forest VanDyke and Robbie Swift).
Soon enough, Simba finds himself in a creatively staged wildebeest stampede orchestrated by Scar and blames himself for his father’s resulting death. Running away, he grows up in exile with wisecracking meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and warthog sidekick Pumbaa (William John Austin), learning to embrace their worry-free “Hakuna Matata” lifestyle.
And just like that, Simba grows up to be a muscular lion (Darian Sanders) who defends his two friends against a hunting grown-up Nala (Khalifa White), and of course sparks fly (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight”).
The shaman Rafiki (a wonderfully effusive Gugwana Dlamini, often speaking Swahili) guides Simba in returning to the pride and restoring the animal kingdom to life after desolation caused by Scar and his hyenas, and to finally learn of his father that “He Lives in You.”
Cast members infuse their performances—singing, dancing and puppetry—with enthusiasm and care, complemented by an orchestra and nuanced percussion (conducted by Karl Shymanovitz).
The show’s exquisite artistry, including shadow puppetry, feels refreshing in today’s digital age, a testament to the power of human craftsmanship. “The Lion King” musical thus transcends the film, becoming a nearly spiritual experience in its own right. Don’t miss it!
“The Lion King” continues at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, through March 26, with shows Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $42 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (866) 755-2929 or visiting BroadwayinHollywood.com. Masks are optional. Run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.