If you ever saw beloved 90s animation film The Lion King (and anyone with a pulse presumably has) you’ll know the general gist of the story: good overcomes bad, true love wins, and the villain gets his inevitable comeuppance. It's a classic Disney plot, populated with memorable characters and a breathtaking soundtrack, and its place in our collective childhood memories is well-deserved.
But The Lion King the musical is something else altogether, and last night's opening performance of the worldwide hit at Crown Casino was quite possibly one of the best shows I've ever attended.
There’s a reason The Lion King is so successful (since opening on Broadway in 1997, it has become one of the most successful musicals in history, playing eight times a week in the heart of Times Square), and it's not just that they've brought a beloved cast of characters to life (which is true), or that it is made up of an exceptionally talented cast (also true), but because they’ve payed homage to the original while creating something else entirely. And that something else is pretty spectacular.
Visionary director and innovator Julie Taymor (screenworks include the critically-acclaimed "Frida" and "Across The Universe") is to thank for much of that magic, bringing to the production a surrealistic, visually-spectacular, at times eerie quality that evokes the dream of Africa at every turn. In fact, every visual element in The Lion King – from the set designs and costumes, to the lighting and makeup are phenomenal. Flocks of birds are represented by intricately feathered arm and head pieces, giraffes are brought to life by men balancing precariously on enormous stilts, and multiple individuals join to create a large elephant that weaves its ungainly way across the stage, dodging herds of antelope and other African wildlife.
And what is so unique and beautiful in this pulsing, colourful ensemble is that there is no attempt to mask the human element behind the animals; rather, the two worlds blend seamlessly. We are aware of the talented puppeteers that breathe life into the animal figures, but it only serves to enhance the charm (and ironically the realism) of those same animals.
While The Lion King retains a large portion of the dialogue and plot (I hadn't seen the film for years, but I recognised particular lines and the direction of events) there are some small changes, with several musical additions bolstering the storyline. Classics such as The Circle of Life, Can You Feel The Love Tonight and Hakuna Matata are all there, but there are also some new, and equally memorable, songs, such as The Madness of King Scar and Simba's (Nick Afoa) rousing rendition of He Lives in You.
All of the actors, singers, dancers and musicians are wonderful, immersing you entirely in the musical, but the two standouts of the night are the hilarious and vocally dynamic Rafiki (Buyi Zama), whose spell-casting and general dosing out of wisdom come with an equal measure of sass, and the villainous Scar (Josh Quong Tart), who gives a thrilling performance of Be Prepared to a cast of alternately giggling and cowering hyenas. Of note, also, is Zazu (Cameron Goodall), for transforming himself so completely into the hornbill that is Mufasa's loyal and long-suffering majordomo.
There's a lovely upside to all this drama, too, and probably what gave the original movie its enduring qualities and so much of its charm, and that's its family-friendly values which promote strong parental guidance in the life of a child (in this case, a lion) and the importance of acceptance, foregiveness and integrity.
True to its name, The Lion King rules.
The Lion King
Director Julie Taymor
Venue: Crown Theatre Perth
Dates: November 21, 2015 – February 28, 2016
Tickets: $65 – $155