“Lion King”: A Spectacular Menagerie of African-ish Delights—at Broadway San Jose
Julie Taymor’s Majestic Musical Parade Shines Onstage
by Tyler Jeffreys
Like the earth’s first humans, “The Lion King” tale originates in Africa. Sadly, the original Disney movie replaced inspiring African heroes with animals. But Designer/Director Julie Taymor cheers me up with colorful acrobatics, 3D apparitions, graceful acting, and dancing grass.
I see why “The Lion King” has been conquering Broadway for 25 years! Even if you’re not into musicals, this show will blow your mind.
Simba is Disney’s animal version of the actual Mali hero, Sundiata Mansa, which translates to Lion King. As the Mali people tell the story, the king is murdered by his older brother and Prince Sundiata runs away. When he returns, Prince Sundiata finds his kingdom in shambles, and challenges the false king, his uncle.
While Disney used animals to sell the universal themes, director Taymor has reinvigorated the African style and design. Taymor’s in depth research into African and East Asian design humanizes the beloved tale. “The Lion King” has paved the way for a cultural and design renaissance in U.S. theater.
Her choices are inspired by multiple African and Asian traditions. Prince Simba (young Jaylen Lyndon Hunter) struts in wearing a Kenyan Maasai warrior’s beaded corset, symbolizing his bravery. The glamorous, giant puppets hark back to Asian puppet artistry.
When Simba’s beloved Nala (young Scarlett London Diviney/adult Kayla Cyphers) speaks, she expresses herself with Bali-dance inspired movements—rolling her neck and fluidly arranging her arms. Taymor introduces giant Indonesian shadow puppets, a 2,000-year-old art form, driving the story forward.
Each performer shows off their quadruple threat abilities: acting, dancing, singing, and puppeteering—to create unique, touching spectacles.
Crafty Jürgen Hooper plays Zazu and makes puppeteering a blue bird half his size look easy. Dressed in an English butler suit made from Ghanian kente cloth, he hilariously earns his place in the royal family with smart mouthed advice.
“Lion King” sets a perfect example of performers and designers working in harmony, which happens to be the theme of opening song “Circle of Life.” We see actors ride bicycles with giant antelopes in their spokes, so the antelopes leap as their bike wheels roll.
“Circle of Life” is an energetic song that presents giraffes’ heads almost touching the lights high above, bobbing their necks side to side—another amazing spectacle. Dozens of colorful animals dance and sing below the swaying giraffes.
When large, fantastical masks bounce down the aisle, you can’t help but smile and clap along—it’s a poppin’ musical parade.
“The Lion King” boasts a magical parade of colors and cultures—even the U.S. gets a shoutout! Simba’s best friends Timone (reactive Tony Freeman) and Pumbaa (lovable John E. Brady) offer to “dress in drag and do the Charleston” to distract their enemies. Africa’s influence on every culture in the world cannot be denied.
Big thanks to Julie Taymor for refining Disney’s version of “The Lion King.” Thank you for digging deep into non-western rituals and showing us a wider world. She reminds us that theater is more than the Greeks and Shakespeare—it’s the living record of all our cultures and rituals. Don’t miss the greatest show ever.
“The Lion King” –book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, music and lyrics by Elton John, Tim Rice, with Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Hans Zimmer, Julie Taymor, directed by Julie Taymor, at Broadway San Jose. Info: BroadwaySanJose.com – to August 21, 2022.
Cast: Spencer Plachy as “Scar,” Gerald Ramsey as “Mufasa,” Gugwana Dlamini as “Rafiki,” Nick Cordileone as “Timon,” Jürgen Hooper as “Zazu,” John E. Brady as “Pumbaa,” Darian Sanders as “Simba,” Kayla Cyphers as “Nala,” Forest VanDyke as “Banzai,” Martina Sykes as “Shenzi” and Robbie Swift as “Ed.”
The role of “Young Simba” is alternated between Jaylen Lyndon Hunter and Jordan Pendleton and the role of “Young Nala” is alternated between Scarlett London Diviney and Farrah Wilson.
Rounding out the cast are: Derek Adams, Kayla Rose Aimable, William John Austin, Iman Ayana, Isaiah Bailey, Samantha Lauren Barriento, Eric Bean, Jr., TyNia René Brandon, Layla Brent, Christin Byrdsong, Sasha Caicedo, Thembelihle Cele,
Adrianne Chu, Leroy Church, Daniela Cobb, Lyric Danae, Marquis Floyd, Tony Freeman, Mukelisiwe Goba, Marquise Hitchcock, Jane King, Gabisile Manana, Christopher L. McKenzie, Jr., Justin Mensah, Nhlanhla Ndlovu, Aaron Nelson,
Jeremy Noel, Sicelo Ntshangase, Sayiga Eugene Peabody, Christopher Sams, T. Shyvonne Stewart, Jennifer Theriot, Courtney Thomas, Diamond Essence White, and Sherman Wood.
Banner photo: Disney’s “The Lion King” – Photo by Brinkhoff/Mogenburg