Disney's Sun-Drenched 'The Lion King' is a Musical Wonder via Broadway in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center

The production's creative use of scenery, props and puppetry transform this classic childhood film into a new and immersive experience sure to delight adults and kids alike

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click to enlarge "The Lion King" - Courtesy Broadway in Cincinnati
Courtesy Broadway in Cincinnati
"The Lion King"

Much like its 1994 film counterpart, Broadway’s The Lion King (currently onstage at downtown's Aronoff Center through Feb. 2) opens with a punch of sun-drenched vibrancy. Its scope feels larger than life — like gazing into the expanse of Africa’s Pride Lands.

A Disney classic, the audience knows where this story is going from the moment Rafiki sings “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba Sithi uhm ingonyama!” And that nostalgia, speaking as a person who grew up watching the film, is transportive. When animals — manned puppets of giraffes, elephants, gazelles, birds, zebra, leopards and more — come strolling through the aisles it feels magical, the theater transforming into a mosaic of color and sound. The animals are mesmerizing works of artistry that stalk, lurch, soar, stampede and pounce about the stage.

When I saw the touring production at the Aronoff Center's Procter & Gamble Hall, a kid in front of me, who had several Lion King stuffed animals with him, watched with awe. When the prim, uptight red-billed hornbill Zazu, the adviser to the royal family, first appeared the child held up his toy and pretended it, too, was flying. It’s that kind of whimsy that this production evokes, a kaleidoscopic playfulness that doesn’t shy away from heavier subject matter. 

The rambunctious lion cub Simba was played by a lively Walter Russell III, who seemed to be having the time of his life. (Richard A. Phillips Jr. plays Young Simba on other nights.) Gerald Ramsey portrayed his father, Mufasa, with softness and authority. In those beginning scenes, he is a strong yet benevolent leader. The relationship between father and son is a sweet one — a dad who wants to protect his cub and a restless son eager to learn about their kingdom. It’s true: this Simba just “can’t wait to be king.” 

Like the film, Mufasa tells Simba that one day “everything the light touches” will be his to rule. But lurking in the shadows is this story’s villain, Mufasa’s brother Scar. Scar has schemes of his own, which lead to Simba running off on his own. You likely know the story behind the widely-seen film, and the musical's plot is mostly the same. The fantastical puppets and shadow play bring a more folkish sense to it, and a few additional musical numbers allow actors to mine deeper into their character's inner thoughts. 

Despite oozing with wickedness, Spencer Plachy in the role of Scar is a sardonic delight. His number with the hyenas, “Be Prepared,” is a devilish rollick that illustrates Scar’s ability to manipulate his way to the throne. Speaking of the hyenas, the trio — Shenzi, Ed and Banzai (played by Martina Sykes, Robbie Swift and Keith Bennett, respectively) — offers some of the musical’s most absurdly funny moments. (Watch out for when the cackling hyenas adlib to reference a certain Cincinnati delicacy.) 

Also notable in the laugh department are none other than Simba's pals Timon and Pumbaa, a gassy warthog and witty meerkat. The lovable duo of outcasts are played here by Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz. As shadow puppets portray them trotting around the jungle, Brandon A. McCall — aka older Simba — literally roars onto the scene. He plays the character with heartfelt emotion as he deftly navigates Simba's inner conflict. Does he listen to the guilt inside or embrace his rightful place on Pride Rock and move forward? "Endless Night" renders this inner strife beautifully. "How can I find my way home?" he asks, later singing, "I know that the night must end and that the sun will rise."

It's this sense of relentlessness in the face of adversity that brings The Lion King home. "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" is another memorable moment. Sung between McCall and Kayla Cyphers, who plays Nala with a strong tenderness, their voices melt together exquisitely.

That the production won six Tony Awards during its first run on Broadway 21 years ago should be no surprise. Its creative use of scenery, props and puppetry transforms this classic childhood film into an altogether new and immersive experience sure to delight adults and kids alike. 

Through Feb. 2. Ticket prices start at $29. Aronoff Center’s Procter & Gamble Hall, 650 Walnut St., Downtown, cincinnatiarts.org.

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