SAN DIEGO- The Lion King The 1994 animated film probably has one of the most famous scores with original music written by Elton John and Tim Rice. The Broadway production of the show uses most of the same songs, with a few new ones thrown in for good measure. For the most part, the script follows the film pretty closely. It’s hard to compare live action to animation, and even harder to create an entire world full of animals on a small stage, but the Broadway show at the San Diego Civic Theater manages to do just that. Using a combination of puppet costumes, masks, multi-person costumes, and creative use of screens and scrims, the company was able to transform the actors into wonderful animal characters.
Many of the actors seemed to play their characters like the original characters from the movie. So much so that I had no idea if Tony Freeman, the actor who played Timon the meerkat, was playing the character as a Jewish/Italian New Yorker, if he himself was a Jewish/Italian New Yorker, or if he tried to play it. like original actor Nathan Lane who, though Catholic, grew up in New Jersey and always thought he was a fellow Jew. Other than questioning Freeman’s legacy, there wasn’t much Yiddishkeit in this show, which makes sense since it’s set in Africa.
The puppet reminded me that I was a child growing up at Temple Emanu El here in San Diego. Once a month, Rabbi Marty Lawson put on a family Shabbat puppet show, taught a Midrash or the weekly parashah. Although the puppets in this six-time Tony Award-winning musical were much more sophisticated, they took me back to that era.
This isn’t the first time the show has been in San Diego either, I remember seeing it when my oldest son was young. The Broadway show launched in 1997 and the North American touring show in 2002. I can’t remember exactly what year I first saw it, but it was somewhere around there.
I think when a show is as successful as the original movie, it’s really hard for the actors to either fill in the huge shoes left by the original actors or to make the characters their own. While actors Gerald Ramsey and Darian Sanders did a fine job as Mufasa and Simba respectively, it’s hard not to want to hear James Earl Jones as Mufasa or Matthew Broderick as Simba. The most notable actors were Timon and Pumba (played by Tony Freeman and John E Brady), the three hyenas (played by Martina Sykes, Forest VanDyke and Robbie Swift) and Rafiki the healing baboon (played by Gugwana Dlamini, who also added powerful African voices and can also be heard on the film’s soundtrack). Judging by the audience’s roars at the curtain call, there was consensus on these outstanding performances.
The cast is one of the largest for a touring show, the cast and crew combined number 140! I imagine there must be a lot of people behind the scenes with such a big company. Because of this, and because the show is set in the African savannah, the sets are really simple, using mostly drop-down screens, people dressed as plants, inflatables, and only a few large pieces that are brought in and taken out. the stage to represent pride rock. The costumes, sets and choreography are simply breathtaking. They use the entire theater, with characters in two rows streaming in from the back of the theater and also out onto the balcony.
Although there were some minor audio issues with some levels sounding a bit off, it was otherwise a very enjoyable show and highly recommended for the whole family, young and old. The show lasts until September 11.
Sandi Masori is a food and theater critic for San Diego Jewish World. When she’s not seeing plays or trying new restaurants, she enjoys travelling, spending time with her two sons and exploring culture.