Since Disney's "The Lion King: The Musical" debuted in 1997 and the animated movie which inspired it blew up in 1994, “The Lion King” has been an almost unrivaled pop culture meme.
Now running at the Wharton Center through July 29, the talented cast and crew of this tour- ing version ensures the staying power of a pop masterpiece that does not rest on its laurels.
First conceived by director Julie Taymor, “The Lion King” is a cohesive and colorful blend of classical theater elements like Shakespeare’s stories and Greek masks with modern dance all rooted in African culture. Audiences may come for the Broadway spectacle and original hit songs by Elton John and Tim Rice like “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” but they can’t avoid the subtle progressive politics or theater history lessons cleverly woven within.
“The Lion King” takes us through the journey of Simba the lion, heir to the throne of the Pridelands, who in short must confront his plotting uncle Scar and avenge the death of his father Mufasa to become the lion king. Along the way, Simba grows from a cub to a manly lion with help from a meerkat named Timon, a warthog named Pumbaa, a magical mandrill named Rafiki, and the spirit of his late father. Oh, and he falls in love with Nala, a fellow lion and childhood friend.
The entire cast, from the lions to the bird spinners and dancers who pretend to be grass are universally solid. Gerald Ramsey plays the stoic Mufasa with an Atticus Finch air, imparting to his son the best line of the show, “There’s more to being king than getting your way all the time.”
As Mufasa’s young Simba for Friday’s performance, Salahedin Safi imbues the perfect blend of restless curiosity, naivety and humility topped with a great voice to carry the first act to its inevitable end.
His young partner Nala played Friday by Danielle W. Jalade matches Safi with strength and wit despite her reduced stage time. Jared Dixon carries that same restless spirit and sense of humility into adult Simba throughout the end of Act II.
As Simba’s foil Scar, Mark Campbell finds the right balance between a friendly condescending megalomaniac and believably creepy menace. Campbell’s best song is “Be Prepared,” the Latin dance army building song featuring ominous goose stepping hyenas led by Scar's minions Shenzi (Martina Sykes), Banzai (Keith Bennett) and Ed (Robb Sapp).
While the lions get their share of plot and songs, it’s the supporting cast that stands out the most from the spectacle. As the brightly painted Rafiki, Mukelisiwe Goba ignites the show with her incredible piercing voice.
Along with Greg Jackson as a hornbill and royal adviser Zazu, Tony Freeman as Timon and William James Austin as Pumbaa, Goba provides comic relief and broad physicality with a character that feels more rounded than most of the leads.
She also steals the show in Act II with the Gospel choir driven “He Lives in You,” easily the best non-Elton John song of the musical.
The song also provides one of the show’s other “awe” moments where Mufasa’s face appears to coalesce among the stars from swirling blobs.
But, rightfully, the biggest draw of the show is the spectacle of reality bending costumes, puppets and set pieces that combine to create an immersive feeling production that literally moves through the audience. But it’s more than just visual effects. There’s a sense of individual character to every animal. Even the smallest moments like the shadow puppet of a mouse skittering has personality.
From the “Circle of Life” opening to its closing reprise, where animals of every shape and size stomp and fly from the balcony to the stage accompanied by the pounding of African drums, “The Lion King” will make child in all of us say “wow!”
“The Lion King” Through July 29
Tickets start at $35 Wharton Center For a full list of showtimes and ticket prices, visit: www.whartoncenter.com/events/ detail/disneys-the-lion-king 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000
Correction: The sentence in reference to Scar's minions has been edited to reflect the correct names of the 2018 touring cast.