“Naaaaants igonyaaaaama bagithi Baba”
Who would not be taken away by Rafiki’s resounding call as the sun rises from the horizon? Perhaps, every child (and even adult) knows these iconic lyrics from one of Disney’s greatest animated classics – The Lion King.
Being a smashing hit, the film was adapted into theatre just three years after it originally hit the big screen; and in 2018, on its 20th anniversary on stage, The Lion King launched its first international tour, kicking off at The Theatre at Solaire in Manila.
Tonight, after a handful of season extensions due to popular demand, it is time to draw back the curtain for the musical’s Manila run. Fortunately, I was able to watch the show a month before The Lion King was set to bid farewell.
What is truly wonderful about The Lion King is how it is an explosion of creativity and imagination. Everything you see on stage is just appealing to the eyes. The audience would surely have their jaws hanging wide open at all the sight there is to behold.
The story, borrowing themes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, dwells on the idea of a Circle of Life as it narrates the tale of Simba.
As dawn breaks, the mandrill Rafiki (played by Ntsepa Pitjeng) gathers all animals to Pride Rock as King Mufasa (Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile) and his Queen Sarabi (Lungile Mkhize) present their newborn cub and heir-to-the-throne Simba in “The Circle of Life”.
This is probably my most favorite part of the show. Everything just fit perfectly in place. What I really loved about this scene is how all the animals entered the stage. Actually, I really wondered how The Lion King will pull this off on theatre; and I was more than amazed the moment I found out the answer.
The creativity of The Lion King – its intelligent use of puppets and masks – is beyond compare. I was always in awe every time I saw how the animals were brought to life on stage. Also, the African-inspired wardrobe and set, splashed with earthen hues and accentuated by other vivid colors, were a visual delight. Indeed, The Lion King is a magnificent work of art.
Of course, a number of its songs, especially “The Circle of Life,” are truly remarkable. I also liked how the scoring was complemented by two musicians on both sides of the stage, each playing some sort of traditional percussion instruments. This unique thing about The Lion King goes to show how creative the musical’s producers really are.
As for Pitjeng, she was astounding as Rafiki. She is a great singer-actress, with no single ounce of doubt. Well, what would you expect from one who have performed the same role countless of times in four different countries across Europe and the Americas? She just has that ability to perfectly portray Rafiki’s peculiar personality, and that strong voice that can elicit goosebumps from the audience the moment she yells the iconic opening lyrics.
On the contrary, Khanyile and Mkhize did not really shine in the musical. Mkhize’s role was not given much spotlight in the entire story, while Khanyile just was not stellar as Mufasa. I don’t think he fit really well into the role.
Soon, Simba grows into a young cub (performed by Filipino actor Julien Joshua Dolor, Jr.), who becomes friends with a lioness of his age Nala (Filipina Uma Naomi Martin). Both young actors were really adorable on stage, especially in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”. Their to-die-for cuteness blended well with the colorful sequences.
The two were chaperoned by the hornbill Zazu (Andre Jewson), loyal servant to the throne. His humor was always on point.
Later on, Simba is tricked by his uncle Scar (Antony Lawrence) into believing that Mufasa has a surprise for him. He tells him to stay and wait in the gorge. Then, Scar, through his hyena accomplices, unleashes a wildebeest stampede towards Simba. After Scar tells his brother that Simba is in peril, Mufasa rushes to save his only son. However, as he desperately climbs to safety, Scar pushes him off the cliff and into the charging beasts, killing him. When Simba sees the lifeless body of his beloved father, Scar brainwashes the child into thinking that this was all his fault. He further convinces Simba to run away, and he does. With this, Scar ascends to the throne.
Scar is certainly an evil genius with a dash of sass, and Lawrence got all those. Kudos!
After Scar tells everyone that both Mufasa and Simba are dead, Rafiki leads the lionesses into mourning. This scene was really emotional. I liked how the lionesses ‘wept’ for the father and his son. The imaginativeness of The Lion King is just off the charts.
Out of exhaustion, Simba faints in the middle of nowhere, but is saved by the meerkat Timon (Jamie McGregor) and the warthog Pumbaa (Pierre Van Heerden). They lead him to their carefree way of living as they burst into the lively tune of “Hakuna Matata”. As they sing all their worries away, the cub grows into a young adult lion (Felipe Flores, an alternate for the role).
The much-loved personalities of Timon and Pumbaa from the original animation are very much retained in the musical adaptation, thanks to McGregor and Heerden. They can surely throw all the witty punchlines of the charismatic duo. Indeed, all broke into laughter the moment they said how they loved eating “piniritong tipaklong.” Together with Zazu, Timon and Pumbaa brought lots of comic relief to The Lion King; hence, their audience never left the theatre hungry for laughs.
As the second act begins, we see how Pride Land is transformed from a thriving kingdom into a desolate land due to Scar and the hyenas’ greed. Determined to restore the balance to the Circle of Life, grown-up Nala (Noxolo Dlamani) sets off to look for help (“Shadowland”).
Dlamani, a budding actress, has potential. Her alto voice is solid, but somehow lacks enough power. However, I believe there is a place for her somewhere in musical theatre.
In a twist of fate, Nala bumps into Simba. They share an intimate moment as they perform the classic song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” I was looking forward to this scene, but I was somehow disappointed. Flores and Dlamani just did not work as a duet for me. Somehow, I felt that Dlamani’s voice was not fit for this song.
Anyway, as Nala shares the dystopic state of Pride Land to Simba in order to convince him to return, the rightful heir refuses to do so, still believing that he is to be blamed for his father’s untimely demise.
Simba runs away, and unintentionally meets Rafiki. She persuades him to claim the throne for himself, whilst explaining that the spirit of Mufasa dwells inside him (“He Lives in You”).
I think that this is second to “The Circle of Life” as my most favorite scene in the musical. I just loved its emotional appeal. In the first half of the song, Rafiki serenely summons the spirit of Mufasa who appears as a constellation. This scene is awe-inspiring. I absolutely liked how the stars formed the face of the fallen king.
After Simba realizes his responsibilities to become king, he erupts into celebration, transforming the song into a lively one. This is where I was able to fully appreciate Flores. His tenor voice is strong but crystal clear. It truly exemplifies the youthfulness of Simba’s character despite having grown up. Oh, and he has some insane moves packed under his sleeves. Indeed, even if he was just an alternate for the role, Flores has proved that he will go a long way in musical theatre.
Now convinced to return home, Simba is accompanied by Nala, Timon and Pumbaa to Pride Land. There, Simba faces Scar once and for all, challenging him into a final battle for the throne of Pride Land.
The Lion King was met with roaring cheers from Filipino theatre-goers. Indeed, who would not love the show’s visual aesthetics? The musical is just undeniably a glorious sight to behold. Also, the cast is great as a whole despite its diversity. There were great singer-actors, and a number of those with potential to be amazing ones. Meanwhile, the music is okay, but only a few had that “last song syndrome” or “wow factor” appeal. I guess the musical was somehow lacking in this area.
As The Lion King performs its last show on Philippine stage tonight, I think that everyone who put the show together should be given a ginormous round of applause. Congratulations for a successful run, and thank you for bringing this one-of-a-kind musical to Manila. Hope to see you all soon!
Until then, long live Simba!