Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Lion King
National Tour
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent review of The Name Jar

Mukelisiwe Goba
Photo by Matthew Murphy
What show has ever had as spectacular an opening scene as The Lion King? With the character Rafiki, a priestess-joker who happens to be a mandrill, stepping into the light and issuing a bracing, piercing call to all of nature: come forth to receive glad tidings. Suddenly light expands to fill the world and the animals enter in procession to heed Rafiki's call. Leaping gazelles, prancing zebras, giraffes in towering glory, elephants lumbering up the theater's aisles, birds in flight, all converge on Pride Rock as it glides in and rotates to reveal the savannah's royal family: Mufasa, the Lion King; his wife Sarabi; and their infant son Simba, held aloft by Rafiki to be blessed and adorned by all of creation–the future king. This is, unquestionably, "The Circle of Life." The scene ends with a compelling down-note and then blackout.

If that blackout signified the end of the show, that opening scene alone would be an indelible memory, and worth the trip to the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis where The Lion King has arrived for a five-week return visit. But that opening is only the beginning. There is so much more, the product of a sturdy foundation provided by the narrative, character development, and music in the 1994 Oscar-winning animated film, then reimagined by the brilliant director Julie Taymor, working with a creative team all at the top of their game. The sum total is one of the most spectacular, imaginative, and moving Broadway musicals of all time.

Since it arrived on Broadway in 1997–following its world premiere try-out run at this very same Orpheum Theatre–The Lion King has kept roaring, standing now as the third longest running Broadway show of all time. It has earned more than any musical in history, both on Broadway and world-wide. The touring company now at the Orpheum shows no wear and tear, its performances and production values as mesmerizing as ever. With one of the largest casts of any show–forty actors, singers and dancers grace the stage–the African savannah and jungle settings truly teem with life.

The Lion King movie was directed by Roger Allers, who worked with Irene Mecchi to construct the musical's book. The stage version follows the movie's narrative quite closely, with its extremely loose variation on the premise of Hamlet: the rightful king (Hamlet's father/Mufasa) is murdered by his jealous brother (Claudius/Scar), and the king's young son (Hamlet/Simba) must avenge his father's death and take his rightful place as the new king. From here, The Lion King takes a great deal of liberty to make way for a puppy love–or rather, lion cub love–subplot, a pair of hilarious sidekicks (Timon and Pumbaa) who bring an extra measure of buoyancy to the show's mid-section, and an ending that has our hero, Simba, reach maturity, find his ancestral strength, seize his responsibilities, and avenge his father's death without having to lose his own life in the bargain.

The musical is most heralded for its groundbreaking staging, but it also offers a treasure trove of gorgeous music drawn on traditional African musical rhythms and instrumentations (Robert Elhai and David Metzger did the pitch-perfect orchestrations). The movie's songs, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, are all in the original stage production, including the popular "The Circle of Life," "Can You See the Love Tonight," "I Just Can't Wait to be King," and "Hakuna Matata." Additional songs were added, some with music by Hans Zimmer based on themes in his Oscar winning score for the movie. African superstar Lebo M contributed words, music, vocal arrangements and choral direction to the musical. Since the show's debut, a bit of streamlining led to the elimination of one song (also dropped from the movie before release), a novelty piece called "The Morning Report," but even so, the show is a truly generous musical feast.

Garth Fagan's choreography is almost always a presence in the show. It is an irresistible blend of athleticism and grace, at times mirroring the elegance of lions on the prowl or antelopes leaping over tall grasses, while other times drumming up the fervor of a stampeding herd of wildebeests, or melded with Rick Sordelet's excellent fight direction for a climactic conclusion. Richard Hudson's scenic design, Julie Taymor's costumes, Donald Holder's lighting, and Steve Canyon Kennedy's sound design work in unison to create a unique onstage universe.

Topping it off, like the grand finale that caps a fireworks show, are the wondrously conceived masks and puppets, designed by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry, that absolutely convey the essence of whatever life form–animal or plant–they are meant to represent. No effort is made, or needed, to conceal the handlers of these puppets, for it is the combination of the fabricated replicas and their human bearers that create their ebullient effect.

The company performing at this stage in the tour is outstanding, and give true meaning to the saying that there are no small parts, for each actor/singer/dancer on stage is essential to the show's full scope. Peter Hargrave is superb as the arrogant, villainous Scar, seething with venom in telling his hyena henchmen to "Be Prepared." Gerald Ramsey makes a strong impression as Mufasa, a king who puts wisdom and love before ferocity, delivering an impassioned lesson to Simba on the source of strength with "They Live in You." The mandril priestess Rafiki is played with passion by Mukelisiwe Goba, opening the show with the clarion chants that call the animal kingdom to form "The Circle of Life."

At the press opening performance, Julian Villela played young Simba, and Aniya Simone played young Nala, Simba's playmate in childhood who becomes his life partner in adulthood. Both Villela and Simone perform with the verve and confidence of theatre pros, delighting the audience. Simone scores points when her Nala cops an attitude, which is often. Villela conveys the joy of being the young scion, pushing his privileges to the limit, and gives a terrific rendition of "I Just Can't Wait to be King." As adult Simba, Darian Sanders expresses the conflict between escaping into a life of "Hakuna Matata" " or facing his demons and with them his responsibilities. His delivery of "Endless Night" is heart-wrenching. Khalifa White plays adult Nala, turning her youthful "attitude" into convictions and strength, as conveyed in "Shadowland." Sanders and White bring smooth romantic harmonies to their pairing in "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"

The show is also awash with comical characters that offset the drama at the core of the narrative. Nick Cordileone as the meerkat Timon, and William John Austin (filling in for John E. Brady) as the warthog Pumbaa, make a delightful comic pair as jungle dwellers who befriend Simba at his darkest hour, teach him to enjoy the taste of grubs, and see him through to his transition to maturity. The three give a buoyant delivery of "Hakuna Matata" to close the first act on an upbeat note. Nick Lamedica is spot-on as Zazu, a hornbill who happens to be Mufasa's secretary, reporting on all matters of state with an officious and worried air. Robbie Swift, Martina Sykes, and Forest VanDyke are a comical, not very bright trio of predatory hyenas who serve as Scar's hench-beasts.

The music sounds terrific played by an eleven-piece orchestra conducted by Karl Shymanovitz. Special mention must go to percussionists Stefan Monssen and Reuven Weizberg, positioned just off stage at either side, providing rousing beats on congas and other traditional percussion instruments throughout the evening.

The Lion King is true musical theatre royalty, in the very top tier of the absolute best works of the genre. It opens with a roar and delivers thrilling artistry, entertainment and conviction, without let-up until the final curtain.

The Lion King runs through April 28, 2024, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-339-7007 or visit For information on the tour, visit

Book: Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi; Music and Lyrics: Elton John and Tim Rice; Additional Music and Lyrics: Lebo M. Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, Hans Zimmer; Director: Julie Taymor; Choreographer: Garth Fagan; Orchestrations: Robert Elhai an Davi Metzger; Music Director: Karl Shymanovitz; Scenic Design: Richard Hudson; Costume Design: Julie Taymor; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Mask and Puppet Design: Julie Taymor and Michael Curry; Sound Design: Steve Canyon Kennedy; Hair and Makeup Design: Michael Ward; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Music Supervisor: Clement Ishmael; Associate Director: Anthony Lyn; Associate Choreographer: Marey Griffith; Production Stage Manager: Charles Underhill;

Cast: John E. Brady (Pumbaa), Nick Cordileone (Timon), Jaxyn Damasco * (Young Nala), Mukelisiwe Goba (Rafiki), Peter Hargrave (Scar), Nick Lamedica (Zazu), Mason Lawson * (Young Simba), Gerald Ramsey (Mufasa), ), Darian Sanders (Simba), Aniya Simone * (Young Nala), Robbie Swift (Ed), Martina Sykes (Shenzi), Jennifer Theriot (Sarabi/ensemble), Forest VanDyke (Banzai), Julian Villela *(Young Simba), Khalifa White (Nala), William John Austin (standby Scar & Pumbaa), Iman Ayana (ensemble), Eric Bean Jr. (swing), Layla Brent (ensemble), Vernon Brooks III (ensemble), Sasha Caicedo (ensemble), Lauren Carr (ensemble), Thembelihle Cele (ensemble), Daniela Cobb (ensemble), ,Gabriel Croom (ensemble), Lyric Danae (swing), Maurice Dawkins (ensemble), Marquis Floyd (ensemble), Tony Freeman (standby Scar, Zazu, Timon & Pumbaa), Jolina Javier (ensemble), Velériane Louisy Louis Joseph (ensemble), Joel Karie (ensemble), Samaree Lawson (ensemble), Gabisile Manana (ensemble), Justin Mensah (swing), Marq Moss (swing), Sarita Amani Nash (ensemble), Nhlanhla Ndlovu (ensemble), Aaron Nelson (swing), Jeremy Noel (ensemble), Sicelo Ntshangase (ensemble), Erick D. Patrick (ensemble), Sayiga Eugene Peabody (ensemble), Yael Pineda-Hall (swing), Jordan Samuels (ensemble), Poseletso Sejosingoe (ensemble), Courtney Thomas (swing), Ben Toomer (ensemble), Denzel Tsopnang (ensemble), Shacura Wade (swing), Brinie Wallace (swing), Thomas Christopher Warren (standby Scar, Zazu, Timon & Pumbaa), Jordan Nicole Willis (ensemble).