THE LION KING definitely roared into Houston. After seeing the current touring cast it is no surprise that Disney Theatrical Production's production of THE LION KING is enjoying its fourteenth year on Broadway (it officially turns 15 on November 13, 2012). The show is abundantly rich and enjoyable for children, but will mesmerize adults as well. The stage adaptation keeps our favorite moments from the film, while adding depth through additional dialog, musical numbers, and fantastic costuming. I have seen all three of the touring casts that have come through Houston, and in my opinion, this one is hands down the best that we have had the pleasure to see.
While watching this cast, the best adjective that came to mind was majestic. This particular cast, more than any other I have seen, understands and emanates pure majesty in every movement and word. This was made especially clear during the opening procession, which is guaranteed to make everyone cheer and smile, during "The Circle of Life" and "The Lioness Hunt." Every member of the cast, especially those in the ensemble, has to completely commit to every character from blades of grass to cheetah to hyena to convey majesty to the audience so powerfully. This cast goes above and beyond in their commitment to the characters they portray.
Buyi Zama as Rafiki is enchanting in her wisdom and ability to connect to the audience from the opening of "The Circle of Life" to the closing of the show. She is the very best Rafiki I have ever seen. Her performance is consistently humorous and deeply insightful. She shines in all the right moments, especially delivering the much needed powerhouse vocals on "Nao Tse Tsa" (called "Rafiki Mourns" on the cast album). Every moment she is on stage is delightful.
Scar, as portrayed by J. Anthony Crane, is the ideal villain—someone you will simply love to hate. His Scar is a master manipulator and plotter, which adds great dramatic irony and foreshadowing to the show. He expertly sings his way through "Be Prepared" and its reprise, but truly shines in my favorite scene from the show, "The Madness of King Scar." He makes the number relatable without making Scar an empathetic character, which is a true display of his skill and craft.
A true surprise and pleasure in the show is Mark David Kaplan's Zazu. Mark David Kaplan handles the Zazu puppet so naturally, that the audience is treated to both a fully realized emotional character in both the puppet and the actor's own facial expressions. He masterfully handles Zazu's humor and sardonic wit, making the character his own and not a rehashing of Rowan Atkinson's portrayal in the film. I was so impressed by Mark David Kaplan, that I actually found myself missing Zazu's cut number "The Morning Report."
Nokubonga Khuzwayo is a true treat as the adult Nala. Also, she is the first South African actress to Grace Houston as Nala, which adds a nice layer of authenticity to the role. Her "Shadowlands" is pristine and the best I have heard. Instead of attacking the song with melancholic heaviness like others before her have, she approaches the beginning from a much lighter, introspective angle and builds to the melancholic heaviness and strength that is required for the number's soul-touching end. These touches were pristine in their use, really allowing Nokubonga Khuzwayo to stand out as one of the best actresses to be cast as Nala. During the Houston run, she will be leaving the U.S. National Tour to join the German company as Nala, so I truly hope that many of you will have the chance to see her before she departs.
As adult Simba, Jelani Remy, is incredible. He perfectly embodies the youth that is required to portray Simba, as he fully discovers himself and his place in life. Like Nokubonga Khuzwayo, he adds his own unique spin on the character, including his take on "Endless Night" which also had a softer and more introspective beginning than I have previously heard. Jelani Remy does a superior job with the role.