A couple months aback, we were woken from our somber mood by a friend’s surprise yelp. It was uncharacteristic of him to cause such commotion unless it was something really big so we asked him what it was all about. Apparently The Lion King Musical is headed into town. I was nonchalant because I am not that much into watching musicals. Well, to be fair, I am not much into watching anything, whether it is movies or musicals. I did love 1994 Lion King movie and I do love listening to songs from famous musicals.

I didn’t readily agree with my friends’ plan to watch the musical although the three of them are already looking forward to the experience. I am not sure I would enjoy watching it on the stage. However, my friend’s persistence paid off in the end as I joined them. Thankfully, my friends were able to snag opening day tickets which were on sale.

And I am glad I gave in to my friend’s prodding. My first theatrical experience filled me with awe.

The Grand Entrance

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The circle of life began at Pride Rock. Photo by Matthew Murphy/Disney

The musical didn’t let up from the start till the end.

As the curtain got rolled up, the viewers were immediately enchanted with a visually delightful production number. To the tune of Sir Elton John’s Circle of Life, the theater doors burst wide open as animals, played of course by humans, made their way to the stage where Pride Rock stood tall. The infant Simba is being introduced to the denizens of his future kingdom, a kingdom made of a bevy of animals such as lions, tigers, gazelles, deer and monkeys. But what really stood out were the giraffes and the elephants.

My mouth gaped in awe with this visual feast that greeted us. I guess I wasn’t the only one who got mesmerized as there was a thunderous applause when the production number drew to a close. I was so in awe that I missed the action in Pride Rock. Nevertheless, being a son of the 1990s and a true blue Disney baby, I have already memorized this scene to the envelope.

The first half, as is in the movie, was a bit gloomy as it related the story of Simba’s childhood, especially on his relationship with his father, Mufasa. Of course, there is his evil uncle Scar who can’t wait to jump on the opportunity to have the throne for himself. Light moments were interjected, especially on the scenes involving Zazu, Mufasa’s primary aide and Rafiki, Mufasa’s primary advisor. I can vividly remember a scene where Rafiki just mumbled an incoherent series of incantations. With a sarcastically funny tone, she faced the audience and asked if we understood. These light moments are things that the audience will always remember.

Hakuna Matata!

The overall mood of the story began to transform with the entrance of Timon and Pumba. The audience lip-synced with their ageless song, Hakuna Matata, one of the songs that will always be related with the movie. The comic relief provided by Timon and Pumba made everyone laugh and smile. At one point, Timon interjected Filipino phrases in between his lines, which caught the audience off guard. It drew glee of joy from the unsuspecting audience. I just wished that their parts were longer. Unfortunately, the story focused more on Simba and Nala.

With Timon and Pumba’s entrance into the story, the complexion of the musical drastically changed. It became lighter but consequentially, it began to slow down in pace as well. Action began to pick up again when Simba resolved to win over his father’s old kingdom which became inundated due to Scar’s tyrannical reign marked by violence and inaction. I guess if you choose hyenas to side with you, you eventually become one of them.

On a more serious note, the story is your typical Disney movie setup. It is all about finding one’s self amidst a sea of doubts. Mixed in with this central theme are the undercurrents of leadership, fatherhood, and wisdom. It also had a healthy share of romance and friendship. The musical has the perfect mix of both light and emotionally charged scenes.

What stood out for me in the musical version is how it tried to adapt the original movie production to the most minute detail. I wasn’t the only one who noticed how uncannily the actors’ voices matched the voices of the original characters they portrayed, especially Scar, Timon and Pumba. They were the true personification of their cartoon equivalents.

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The battle for the thrown heats up with Simba’s birth. Photo by Joan Marcus/Disney

Highs and Lows

The musical has its highs and lows. But let me start with the astounding production set. The props were colorful. The costumes were intricately made. The innovation, especially in the designs, was just astonishing. The overall ensemble and visuals were popping out with vitality. I also liked the fact that the cast is predominantly African. It gave an authentic feel to the overall texture of the performance.

But what I forsake in the musical is how sparse the female characters are involved. It was great that they used a female instead of male to give life to Rafiki but overall, the musical, just like the movie, reeked too much of male virility. By using a female to portray Rafiki, the production was already a step ahead of the cartoon version. However, the disparity is still glaring. This is the only fault that I found in the sea of positives.

Of all the characters, I least appreciated adult Simba and adult Nala, played by Calvyn Grandling and Noxolo Dlamini, respectively. Their performance was lackadaisical, missing those proverbial sparks that I was hoping for. It didn’t help that Dlamini’s singing voice was a bit strained. Her Can You Feel The Love Tonight duet with Simba is a little off pitch. The second part of the story is heavily anchored on them and I was expecting too much from their performance. Unfortunately, they were off pitch.

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No one is allowed to take pictures while the production is on-going. We had to make do with the trailer shown at the entrance. Ugh.

However, their mundane performance was more than made up for by the numerous spectacular individual performances by Jamie McGregor (Timon), Pierre Van Heerden (Pumba), Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile (Mufasa) and Ntsepa Pitjeng (Rafiki). Omar Sharief L. Uddin (young Simba) and Sheena Kirtsten Bentoy (young Nala) were simply adorable. But the true star of the night, surprisingly, is Antony Lawrence (Scar). His depiction of his character is on-point. All his numbers were well-performed that he got resounding applause from the appreciative audience. What made it all the more special is that the individual performances did not overpower each other. Rather, they complimented each other.

As the curtains fall, everybody was on their feet, applauding the entire production for what seemed like hours. As for me, I am grateful that I took on this opportunity to watch one of the best musicals. It brought me back to my childhood but also it sparked my imagination. I am stoked with my first musical experience.

Rating

I am not much of a musical connoisseur but I ended up loving the musical. The children will surely enjoy but I am pretty sure that adults who are kids-at-heart and not-so kids-at-heart will also have a grand time watching the wonderful spectacle that is The Lion King Musical. At the end of the day, what matters is that we enjoy the things we do.

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It is a wonderful experience worth your while.

Post Scripts

The Lion King Musical was performed by Michael Cassel Group and Concertus Manila in association with Disney Theatrical Productions. It is an honor that they chose Manila as the first stop of the first-ever international touring production of Disney’s Lion King. The musical opened last March 18 and will run until May 6 at the Theatre at Solaire. For ticket reservations, check Ticketworld.

Trivia: The six child counterparts of Simba and Nala are Filipinos. All the more reason to support the musical.

P.S. To quote High School Musical’s Ms. Darbus, “The theater is a chapel of the arts, a precious cornucopia of creative energy.” Please refrain from opening your phones during the performance. It distracts other viewers who are focused on the performance. If you are to bring your kids, please ask them to tone down their noise. I understand that the musical is for children and can easily provoke puerile imagination but theater has its own set of unspoken rules one must abide to (such as total silence because it is all about the musical).

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Another me-time away from our burdens. From traveling to musicals. Not bad. Here’s a toast to friendship!
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