Review: ‘The Lion King’ delights audiences at the Benedum Center

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Review: ‘The Lion King’ delights audiences at the Benedum Center

Headdresses for use in the Benedum Center’s production of Disney’s “The Lion King.”

Headdresses for use in the Benedum Center’s production of Disney’s “The Lion King.”

Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Headdresses for use in the Benedum Center’s production of Disney’s “The Lion King.”

Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Headdresses for use in the Benedum Center’s production of Disney’s “The Lion King.”

By Delilah Bourque, Culture Editor

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When the curtain dropped, a hush fell over the crowd at the Benedum Center Friday night, as a powerful voice cried out from the darkness, “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba!”

From the back of the theater, scores of actors in elaborate costumes strolled down the aisles. Everywhere you looked, there were animals making their way on stage — from elephants to giraffes to massive birds. As the animal kingdom came together, curtains rose and fell, revealing the full spectacle of Disney’s “The Lion King.”

“The Lion King,” which runs Sept. 4 through Sept. 29 at the Benedum Center, is a fantastic production. While the most memorable parts of the original Disney movie are maintained, the stage production keeps it fresh — balancing fantastic performances and amazing technical marvels from the puppetry, costuming and set pieces.

The most breathtaking part of “The Lion King” is the attention to detail seen throughout every aspect of the show. All the costuming, makeup, set pieces and puppetry are well-coordinated and elaborate. For example, the actors portraying giraffes in the ensemble sequences are given stilts for both their legs and arms, with elegant giraffe heads extending from their backs as they move through the crowds of animals.

Even when mistakes are made, they are fixed elegantly. During one number, the headdress slipped off an actress portraying a lioness, who fixed it while continuing to dance without missing a beat.

Fans of the 1994 film will be delighted to know that the musical keeps the best bits of the original movie, while adding in new songs to the already iconic music. Classics, such as “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” kept fans of the original happy, while new additions like “They Live In You” elevate the original content to be more similar to traditional Broadway musicals.

The music, written by Elton John, features a full orchestra, as well as two percussionists with an array of drums and other instruments hidden away in balconies on either side of the stage.

Of the few spaces where the new material falls short, the additional plotlines are a sore spot. The biggest example is a scene where Scar, bored with his role as king of Pride Rock, decides he needs a queen by his side. In an oddly tense and uncomfortable scene, Scar tries to convince Nala — who we saw earlier in the production as a child — to be his queen.

The scene works to motivate Nala to leave Pride Rock in fear, leading to her eventual discovery that Simba is alive. In the movie, Nala just happens across Simba in the search for more places to hunt for the starving lions of Pride Rock, so the additional scene seems unnecessary and downright creepy.

The production also brings in new content with jokes that reference contemporary society. At one point Zazu, played by Greg Jackson, comforts Mufasa about Scar being a thorn in his side. “There’s one in every family, sire. Mine is my cousin, he’s always tweeting,” he said, prompting huge laughs from the audience.

Still, many of the funny moments from the original are still in the musical version. One of the most ridiculous parts of the movie, where Timon and Pumbaa dress as humans and do the hula to distract the hyenas, stands up on the stage. 

Performances aside, the puppetry was one of the most standout features of the show. Even the most minor of characters moved gracefully across the stage, with intricate and beautiful puppets bringing the beast out of man.

One member of the ensemble was a gorgeous leopard, depicted by an actress who controlled the front paws of the puppet using her hands, while wires attached to her head allowed the puppet to move with her.

At another point in the show, while Nala and Simba were reconnecting in the jungle, a dancer swept across the stage en pointe, waving small lights attached to wires in her hands, which acted as fireflies.

The performances were equally unmatched, both in terms of acting and vocal prowess. Buyi Zama, who plays Rafiki, has a powerful voice which leads the singing of “Circle of Life” at the beginning and end of the musical. Scar, portrayed by Spencer Plachy, was fantastically evil, and strutted around the stage with malicious bravado. On the flip side, Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa displayed range — switching from warm and energetic to fierce and protective over Simba.

Young Simba, played by Richard A. Phillips Jr. and on alternating nights by Walter Russel III, was equally bouncy. The dynamic between Phillips and Ramsey was adorable, which made it all the more heartbreaking when Mufasa died in a stampede of wildebeests. The excellency is continued into the second act by Jared Dixon, who played the adult Simba, and shined while bringing Simba from a carefree, reckless youth to the king of Pride Rock.

From the humor to the acting to the amazing puppetry, the show is breathtaking. “The Lion King” is a must-see for anyone who loves the original movie, Broadway musicals or beautiful, well-done art.

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