Pride Rock Remains Strong in “Rafiki Tour” of “The Lion King”

Review:  THE LION KING

By Perry Tannenbaum

Among the multitude of musicals they have brought to Broadway, Disney proclaims The Lion King as the world’s #1 musical, not just theirs. Very likely, more people around the globe have seen the show than any other Broadway musical in history. Yet as the megahit reaches its 21st Broadway birthday, the key question we ask each other about it is evolving. As generations grow up and older, we’re less inclined to ask each other if we’ve seen The Lion King. Now in its fourth Charlotte run at Belk Theater, we’re apt to ask each other how many times we’ve seen the tour or, more nostalgically, “Do you remember your first time?”

With all the massing of puppetry for its curtain-raising “Circle of Life,” Lion King wasn’t built to start on time. It’s a bit like a Carowinds ride that doesn’t begin until seatbelts are fastened or doors are locked. Of all beginnings, you don’t want to miss this beginning.

A significant part of why I keep coming back is to be wowed by that opening, of course, but that wow factor diminishes a tad during the five-year intervals between tours. Watching newbies respond to the legendary puppet parade is what keeps the experience fresh for me. My wife Sue has ceded her usual seat for the last two iterations, giving me the opportunity to be up-close when a granddaughter and a great-grandmother took it all in for the first time.

In aisle seats.

Come to think of it, I don’t remember anybody arriving late on press night or taking a seat after the great procession. When a show becomes a family heirloom, as LION KING undoubtedly has, somebody in each group must know the score – and the necessity of arriving before lockdown.

The magic of the puppets, particularly the tall giraffes and the gargantuan elephant, has often been cited as triggering the unique theatricality of director/designer Julie Taymor’s inspired adaptation. But since this company has been designated the “Rafiki Tour,” it’s fitting to direct our attention toward the shaman who greets us and summons the animals to Pride Rock. Not only has Rafiki been favored with a gender switch from the 1994 animated Disney original, she has also discreetly shed her baboon origins. From the outset, we get the message that this unparalleled ceremony is humans paying homage to the animal kingdom – and life itself – in the most respectful and beautiful ways we can devise.

On top of that, there’s percussion, singing, and later even birds in the upper levels of the hall, a cathedral effect. The spectacle envelopes us and uplifts us. Of course you’d want to come back!

Elements of the story echo biblical and Shakespearean motifs that resonate deep within us. What we also treasure about Lion King is how it manages to celebrate both liberty and responsibility as Simba, the future Lion King, matures – always maintaining a firm grasp on which of those values is most important. Delaying justice until Simba gets his priorities sorted out makes it all the more satisfying when he ascends to his rightful throne. Yet the long arc of his drama is punctuated with low, low comedy along the way.

Mukulisiwe Goba as Rafiki and Mark Campbell as Simba’s usurping uncle, King Scar, have traveled long and far on multiple tours of this show, very much a part of its fabric. Crying out her “Nants’ Ingonyama” chant to the kingdom, Goba seems to be as much the soul of Taymor’s Africa as the ginormous sun that rises over the savannah or the iconic baobab tree than spans it. Campbell’s tigerish costume looks weathered from its epic journeying, equally emblematic of Scar’s wickedness and old age. He also wields a cane, adding a dimension of Richard III decrepitude to his seniority and immorality. The 2013 Scar labored with that same limitation – so I can’t continue to overlook the clumsiness of the climactic fight choreography. Clean it up, Diz, especially the last reversal.

Nick Cordileone as the chattery meerkat Timon and Ben Lipitz as the stinky warthog Pumbaa repeat their 2013 stints at Belk Theater, so the comedy in the carefree tropics has never been better. Back at Pride Rock and at the Elephant Graveyard, Greg Jackson is the model of punctilious British servility – and timidity – as Zazu, a high-pitched hornbill with a hilarious puppet.

Nia Holloway returns as Nala, Simba’s destined queen, as lithe and graceful in her movements as ever. Chemistry between her and the new adult Simba, Jared Dixon, isn’t as torrid as it was five years ago. Holloway is more regal and commanding than before, while Dixon is more naïve, exuberant, and happy-go-lucky than his predecessor. It’s as if the mystic grace of Holloway’s cat movements rubs off on Dixon, imparting the gravitas that he has lacked. Goba also intercedes magically in her most dramatic moment as Rafiki.

Only in his afterlife does King Mufasa succeed with his wayward son, and Gerald Ramsey has exactly the right combination of regal strength, fatherly forbearance, and tragic stoicism. Young Simba, who lingers onstage throughout the first act, is the sort of role that could launch a future Michael Jackson. Two youngsters on the cusp of adolescence rotate in the role on tour, keeping with the Broadway practice. Charlotte native Ramon Reed certainly didn’t disappoint on press night, with ebullience to burn. Understandable, since he’s also listed in the current Broadway cast at ibdb.com.

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