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Puppetry rules in Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ at Segerstrom

Ugwana Dlamini as Rafiki in Disney's "The Lion King" national tour (Photo courtesy SCFTA)

Disney’s “The Lion King” musical—based on the 1994 animated film—has roared into Segerstrom Center for the Arts, continuing its run through Feb. 25. While the music, songs, story and performances all enthrall, it’s the various forms of puppetry that elevate the musical to high art.


As in the film, “The Lion King” musical begins with the Swahili-speaking shaman Rafiki (Mukelisiwe Goba)—adorned in a mask and ornate costume—summoning the animals of the African savannah to see Simba, the newborn lion-cub prince.

Scene from Disney's "The Lion King" national tour (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Gazelles leap and giraffes lope gracefully onto the stage as a large elephant (manned by four performers) saunters down one of the audience aisles to join them. Flocks of birds twirl down the other aisle, operated by costumed humans, as the orchestra performs Elton John and Tim Rice’s resounding “Circle of Life.”


All these animals and more—including ostriches, zebras and cheetahs—are expertly animated by humans in costume, using sticks and strings to inhabit and control their animal props.


Warm lighting (designed by Donald Holder) and a shimmering sunrise (scenic design by Richard Hudson) creates a backdrop against which we see the animals’ naturalistic movements bathed in golden light.

Cast of Disney's "The Lion King" touring production (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

The overall effect of this entrance is magical and enchanting, a thread woven throughout as interludes of animal life on the savannah grace the stage between action scenes, sometimes through Indonesian shadow puppetry—silhouettes created by articulated cutouts moving between a light source and background screen.


Director Julie Taymor—who designed the show’s masks and puppets along with Michael Curry—noted that she wanted to portray animals without completely covering up the actors so their facial expressions could come across to the audience.  

The actors portraying Simba’s regal father Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) and evil uncle Scar (Peter Hargrave) wear carved masks attached to their heads that lower when they crouch into attack mode, creating a menacing effect.

Peter Hargrave (Scar) in Disney's "The Lion King" national tour (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

And Mufasa’s red-billed hornbill chief of staff Zazu is a colorful, feathered hand-puppet operated and animatedly voiced by a sprightly Nick LaMedica in blue makeup, suit and bowler hat.

The costumes of actors playing hyenas Shenzi (Martina Sykes), Banzai (Forest VanDyke) and Ed (Robbie Swift) feature the characters' scavenging and laughing heads hanging in front while the actors’ actual heads form the hyenas’ hunched backs.  

Nick Cordileone operates Simba’s friend Timon as a full puppet in front of him while John E. Brady operates sidekick Pumbaa from inside a Japanese bunraku puppet, using his own arms and legs to move around

Darian Sanders (Simba) and Khalifa White (Nala) in Disney's "The Lion King" national tour (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

More than 232 puppets of different types appear in the show, which took 37,000 hours to create.  Intricately designed makeup (Michael Ward) and beaded, textured and patterned fabrics further evince the animal kingdom and reflect the story’s African setting.


While the music and spirited performances of “The Lion King” are certainly compelling, it’s the immersive artistry of the puppets and the visually striking details adorning their human animators that make this production must-see theatre.


Disney’s “The Lion King” continues at Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, through Feb. 25. Tickets start at $39 for performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling the box office at (714) 556-2787. Run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.




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