Of the many images filling the stage, the rising sun of The Lion King is one of the simpler ones -- round, flat and yellow-orange. Yet murmurs and gasps could be heard rippling through the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Twenty-five years after opening on Broadway and 19 years since its first visit to Chicago, the appearance of the layered, ragged-edge sun seemed to reassure and startle the audience in equal measure.
Then Gugwana Dlamini, as the mystical Rafiki, stilled everyone with her resonant delivery of the Xhosa-language verses of Circle of Life, launching us into Lion King’s invented universe. Once again, we are in Africa; once again, we are among the beasts; once again, we watch Mufasa lift newborn Simba on Pride Rock to introduce his subjects to his heir. After a quarter century – a full generation – these opening moments have become iconic.
From this viewer’s perspective, the familiar sights and sounds continue to amaze. Director-designer Julie Taymor’s visual motifs, Elton John and Tim Rice’s score and Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi’s story of a young lion’s coming of age transform a Disney animated film into a complex sensory experience. As slow-moving giraffes on stilts and undulating cheetahs make their entrances, the puppetry weaves the actors to their animal characters and the music – seasoned with African percussion and crafted as show tunes – brings accessible majesty to the proceedings.
Character counts in The Lion King
Character counts deeply in this show. Though each personality is drawn with a broad outline, they strike this writer as archetypal, not stereotypical. Mufasa’s brother Scar seethes with resentment as he interacts with his nephew Simba who will inherit the throne that he himself craves. As Scar advises Simba to improve his boyish roar in order to fill his father’s kingly paws, we can almost see the machinery inside the heads of the sly uncle and impressionable youngster. When Simba flees after Mufasa’s death, the savannah grasses (growing atop actors’ headdresses or sprouting from their bodies) to which he escapes can’t hide his guilt.
The Lion King exerts dramatic force in every scene, whether playful or somber. In I Just Can’t Wait to Be King, Simba and his best friend Nala imagine adulthood as an exciting expansion of childhood. At the height of the romp, the giraffes literally dip their necks over the stage, almost reaching the first row of orchestra seats. Reunited as full-grown lions, Simba and Nala express the new electric charge between them in Can You Feel the Love Tonight through markedly mature choreography. To prove to Simba that his murdered father’s spirit lives within him, Rafiki conjures Mufasa as a giant mask assembled by actors wielding the pieces on poles – an image that changes Simba’s course.
Broadway in Chicago hosts an intimate tale
Inventive production elements certainly enhance a show. But staging, no matter how spectacular, does not have staying power unless grounded in substance. What keeps the Pride Lands worth visiting is the story that happens between the rising and setting of that simple sun. For all of its grand scope, The Lion King is intimate and its message coherent, a musical that can reach just about anyone on life’s journey.
November 17, 2022 - January 14, 2023
Cadillac Palace Theatre
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About the Author: Susan Lieberman
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.