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SocietyJune 28, 2021

The Lion King in Auckland, reviewed by a stampede of critics

Twenty-four years and more than 100 million audience members since its Broadway premiere, the musical of the Disney film The Lion King opened on Saturday to a full house at Spark Arena. A pride of Spinoff people went along and here’s what we thought.

Alex Casey: It lives in me

First of all, a content warning to anyone who grew up having confusing feelings for adult Simba as a kid. Those forgotten feelings are going to come flooding back, they will have intensified, and they will be justified. In fact, basically everything I loved about the film as a kid is intensified by the musical – Zazu’s crack-up gags are even more crack-up, Pumbaa’s farts are even more thunderous, the juicy grubs weirdly look even more delicious made out of wood. Unfortunately, whereas the 88 minute film flew by, the second half of the musical does somewhat put the “drag” in “dress in drag and do the hula”.

Aside from the obvious spectacle of ‘Circle of Life’ which, of course, made me weep, gasp and cackle – often all at once – there were other stand-out numbers. ‘Be Prepared’ was a delightfully villainous stormer, sung from easily the most impressive elephant rib cage staircase I’ve seen this year. (Side note, do you think we will ever get a Scar origin film? Surely it’s not far off.) ‘He Lives in You’ was très emotional, cleverly pulling off a difficult-to-replicate image from the film. I did NOT care for the new song where Scar toyed with the idea of forcing Nala to be his child-lion bride.

Finally, a piece of advice. If you find yourself risking it all during intermission to go to the toilet AND buy a drink, lament not if you don’t make it back in time and they lock the doors. Instead of furiously berating the ushers, as several deeply unpleasant people chose to do in our session, give it a bit of ol’ hakuna matata. You are only going to miss a couple of minutes and, if you are lucky, you might even sneak a peek of some of the performers doing fun vocal warm-ups in the foyer before bouncing back into the arena. Which, as jaw-droppingly incredible as the stage show is, might have been my favourite part.

Leonie Hayden: A wondrous combo of costume and puppetry

I was very much a Jim Henson kid, so with very little nostalgia for the original film (or any Disney film) the highlights for me were everything that could only be found in a stage production. The wondrous combination of costuming and puppetry (and the symbiotic relationship between performer and costume) appealed to the Henson Head in me, specifically the menacing silhouette cast by Scar every time his hunched form, somehow elegant, insinuated itself onto the stage. Our little and big Simbas were sweet rays of light – I’m told on the night we went, our little Simba was a kura kaupapa kid which really put the pride in Pride Rock for me. The stand out was Futhi Mhlongo​ as Rafiki, the shaman mandrill. That she spoke mostly in Xhosa is a testament to a performance that transcends language – easily the most exciting singing I’ve ever heard in a musical, and a very funny performance to boot. It wasn’t lost on me that this will be perhaps the only musical I ever see with a pan-global, majority POC cast. I could see and hear the storytelling traditions of many different cultures, and while I didn’t understand them all, they were felt and appreciated.

Where the first half was stacked with the film’s hits and some of the most wow-moment set pieces, the second half dragged a little and the penultimate scenes contained all the tension of the waistband in an old pair of undies. But ultimately it’s all about spectacle, and I reckon it’s worth throwing down your expendable income if you or your small person love musical theatre.

The cast of The Lion King performing “Circle of Life”. (Photo: Matthew Murphy, Disney)

Madeleine Chapman: I’m still singing

According to my Screentime app, I have had music playing on Spotify for 87 minutes since Saturday morning and every single one of those minutes was spent playing ‘He Lives In You (Reprise)’ from the original Broadway cast recording of The Lion King. I’m listening to it as I write this. I’ll be listening to it in 10 minutes. I’ll likely be listening to it when you read this, no matter when that is. There’s something about a core song in a musical that sticks (‘I’m Here’ from The Color Purple, ‘She Used To Be Mine’ from Waitress etc) and presents a two-hour show within a four minute performance. Yes, the songs from the movie are omnipresent at this point and they were impressively executed on stage, but it’s ‘He Lives In You (Reprise)’, performed with inexplicably human dancers and a powerhouse Futhi Mhlongo as Rafiki that has planted itself in my brain for 72 hours.

Beyond the sound, it took me a second, as it always does, to remember that there are limits to what can be done on a stage and the creative decisions in puppets and shadow work aren’t a substitute for Disney animation but an entirely original interpretation. As an increasingly cynical adult, The Lion King served as a healthy exercise in suspending disbelief not just enough to love the show for what it was, but enough to cry twice: expectedly during The Sad Scene and unexpectedly during ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’ because the kids are doing so well!

Now please excuse me, I have a song to listen to another 99 times.

Sam Brooks: Could it fill Spark Arena?

For the most part, you know what you’re getting with The Lion King. You’re getting a spectacular opening number. You’re getting a queer-coded villain vamping around the stage like a drag queen looking for her lashes in a darkened club. You’re getting sexual tension between apex predator felines. You’re getting Rafiki, a role that involves so much paint and makeup that it could keep the cosmetic dermatology industry afloat single-handedly.

My favourite thing about The Lion King and its success is how genuinely weird it is for a Broadway musical. There’s barely a naturalistic moment in the entire thing, and for the most part, we’re watching people play things that aren’t people, including but not limited to lions (duh), blades of grass, and at one point, what looks like the next slate of celebrities to join The Masked Singer. With the exception of Cats, it’s the closest that Broadway gets to experimental theatre, which should also serve as a warning: if you want to keep your child away from earning below a living wage waving a sheet around onstage, keep them away from The Lion King.

The one thing that did worry me about The Lion King was whether it could fill Spark Arena’s enormous space. It does, probably to the detriment of one of our local Spotlight stores. It’s a uniquely huge musical, though to be fair nobody else has really tried to recreate this level of spectacle since. If you think of the most popular musicals of the past two decades, with the asterisked exception of Hamilton, they’re pretty naturalistic and could easily work as films. While The Lion King has twice been depicted on film, this musical version is theatre, pure and simple.

As so often in musicals, the best moment comes when theatre meets the real world. At the top of the second act an usher next to me isn’t fast enough getting back to her post. Another usher yanks her out of the way of a row of performers marching past her, singing joyfully at the top of her lungs. For one terrifying moment, that usher was in The Lion King. You won’t get that kind of spontaneity on Disney+.

Mukelisiwe Goba as Rafiki. (Photo: Joan Marcus, Disney)

Jane Yee: A word from my six-year-old

The Lion King was a hell of a puppet show. It was an audiovisual feast, but also a truly grounding reminder of how completely void of talent I am. They sing! They dance! They act! They morph into animals! I still trip over my own feet every single day.

There was a weird moment when Scar tried to crack on with Nala and a few New Zealand specific gags wedged their way in, but aside from those don’t expect any major diversions from the movie script. If you’re wondering if it’s appropriate for kids, my six-year-old was enthralled throughout and hasn’t shut up about it since we left the arena. She wasn’t scared when the hyenas closed in on the little lions, nor was she upset when young Simba wept over the body of his father. In fact she was so nonplussed she announced to the silent arena, “He’s dead yo.”

Elisa Rivera: A goosebumps performance

I owned the original Lion King soundtrack as a child and knew every song and line by heart. I was so excited about heading to opening night I even contemplated wearing a lion costume. I resisted the temptation.

I was deeply disappointed by the 2019 live action remake of The Lion King (sorry Beyoncé!), so I had some trepidation about the stage version. But that quickly vanished when the curtains opened. You know the song. You know the opening line. Hearing ‘The Circle of Life’ live had me covered in goosebumps.

I loved seeing the beautiful talent of both the young and older Simba. It was such a sweet surprise. Hearing the Kiwi accents in an international stage show was a first for me and it was such a prideful moment. It was great to see a cast of colour as this is not something I often get to see on stage, and top marks for the incredible puppetry. There was something magical about getting lost in the choreography but also having a small understanding of how it worked.

Scar and Mufasa in The Lion King. (Photo: Joan Marcus, Disney)

Duncan Greive: It won over even this reptile

My main experience of musicals is falling asleep roughly 20-30 minutes into them, largely due to my own decaying body’s immune response to dark, warm rooms when I’ve already had dinner. But also because I think I fundamentally find musicals hard to engage with; the songs don’t sing to me and the story gets lost between them. The Lion King had me from the first moments, using the whole of Spark Arena as a stage, and with the sense of play evident in the puppetry. It felt like it threw back to a pre-digital age which demanded a different kind of formal creativity in its staging.

It also felt very small. Spark is designed for big arena shows, but this felt like a theatre show punched out to a too-big venue, with the screens too often the only way to really absorb the content. Fortunately between the puppetry and clutch of super-engaging performances, even this ancient, deeply musically-ambivalent consumer spent most of his time transported to an imagined Africa.

Sacha Judd: Nothing prepares you for the reality

I love musical theatre, and the only reason I’d never seen The Lion King is that every time I went to book a ticket to see it in New York there was another show I wanted to see a little more. So when the curtain went up and the performers took the stage at Spark Arena, I legit almost cried at how much I’d missed the experience.

The first international cast to return since Covid were clearly so excited to be there, and I was just as overwhelmed at being able to see them. The Lion King is more than two decades old as a stage show. I felt like I’d seen enough photos, clips, and award performances that it might have been underwhelming in person. But it turns out even if you know people wear giraffes on their head, it doesn’t prepare you for how cool it is in real life. The costume design is incredible, the international cast super-talented, and now I just want to sit down and watch Beyoncé’s Black is King on repeat.

Toby Manhire: Through the fourth wall with Philip K Dick

Almost by definition musicals are indifferent to the fourth wall: it’s pretty weird to stop mid-conversation and burst into song. But The Lion King busts through it, and I don’t just mean the talking animals. It’s a genuine marvel of puppetry, from delicate shadow-play to breathtaking giraffes on stilts. And there’s no real attempt to hide the people pulling the strings; it trusts the audience to go with it. They do.

What Spark Arena suffers by losing the enclosed splendour of a theatre, it makes up for in the spectacle of a big space. The menagerie spilling down the aisles, the giant birds wafting all the way up to the cheap seats. Wondrous big set-pieces like the stampede. And of course the greatest theatrical device yet created by humans: confetti cannons. The technical wizardry isn’t just used for astonishment, it’s also used for comedy. The split-second hula diversion by Timon the meerkat had my eight-year-old performing re-enactments all of the next day. Nick Mercer as Timon and Futhi Mhlongo as the shaman-mandrill Rafiki, for my money, were the most memorable of a superlative cast.

A final, useless fact I learned reading about the genesis of The Lion King story. The earliest treatment for the film was written by US science fiction writer and poet Thomas Disch. He pulled out because he didn’t like the direction of what he’d titled King of the Kalahari.

Disch, who shot himself dead in 2008, was fascinating for a number of reasons, including his strange clash with his friend, sci-fi superstar Philip K Dick. In 1972 Dick wrote to the FBI expressing concern that Disch’s novel Camp Concentration included coded messages about a “covert organisation which … may be Neo-Nazi”. After Dick’s death, Disch exacted literary revenge in a collection called The Word of God. It includes a novella with a character called Philip K Dick who reincarnates himself as a young Nazi in 1939, kills Disch’s fictional father, and paves the way for Hitler to win the war. What does any of this have to do with the Auckland production of The Lion King? Nothing. Hakuna matata.

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