Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Captivating Legacy of ‘The Lion King’ Rolls on in Appleton

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The story in “The Lion King” in 25 words: A headstrong young lion believes he has caused the death of his great father and must overcome his power-hungry uncle and himself to rightly rule.

The production of “The Lion King” in 25 words: Dynamic and clever animal puppetry, creatively masked exotic characters, sweeping songs with African roots, eye-filling scenic displays and feats of theatrical engineering ignite the imagination.

The history of “The Lion King” in 25 words: Launched in 1997, the musical created from an animated movie has been a massive global draw for eager all-ages audiences with earning power in billions.

There is a phrase in theater circles: Shows that become hits have “legs.” In the case of “The Lion King,” the legs are longer than a giraffe’s. The image especially works because of the fantabulous giraffe puppets in the show that are powered by a human who imitates the slow-mo grace of the elegant creature.

A touring production of the musical that has roots in the wilds and distinctive cultures of Africa along with music by Elton John is in the midst of a 23-performance return visit to Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. Again, the show is a huge draw. Something like 46,000 of your friends and neighbors have seen or will see “The Lion King” on this go-around.

The impressive thing is that – after all this time and all the performances and all the people who have seen the show – there’s still quality. That speaks to the American talent pool in musical theater, plus this great inspiration for quality control: Fill a large venue with responsive people, and performers are going to do their darnest to do their best.

In the show I saw – 6:30 p.m. Sunday – I thought the best performance came from Mpume Sikakane as Rafiki, who speaks in a native tongue (and English) and chants and moves in and out of the saga in mystical ways to encourage and/or admonish characters. Sometimes haunting, sometimes comical, Rafiki is a special presence. Back home, I finally paid attention to two flyers stuffed in the printed programs, one of which said, “The role of Rafiki will be performed by Mpume Sikakane.” The performance in the major role that so impressed me was by an understudy, a substitute! She came off the bench, so to speak, and hit a home run. That is the kind of quality that is in this company.

This and that from “The Lion King” experience:

+ Among photo ops for patrons is an ice sculpture outside the front door. In our cold and snowy February, it is a cool effect for sure.

+ The aura takes you out of the ordinary. The story is about an animal kingdom but about humans, too – particularly about what makes leadership.

+ Many, many scenic elements fascinate. Engineering wizards created a moving stone wall, a stage floor that becomes a pool of water that sucks up another imaginary pool in an ever-decreasing swirl. Animals are part puppet and part human operating and sometimes speaking and singing in character – a true form of live animation. The three main hyenas walk on two legs and the left arm, manipulate their puppet’s mouth for speech and song and create an individual personality while being the pseudo-comic, kinda nasty hyena we’re suspicious/wary of.

+ The voicings of the main male lions are commanding – regal by Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa, the leader of the pride, and Brit-accented sinister by Spencer Plachy as the evil uncle, Scar.

+ Chant voices of the lionesses are riveting.

+ “One by One” at the start of Act II fills the hall with joy and human-powered birds “flying” on all levels of the theater.

+ “The Lion King” breaks the wall between performers and audience when puppet/people animals arrive along aisles and young Simba, Mufasa’s son, leaves in humiliation.

+ The show has kid power in the roles of Young Simba (boy) and Young Nala (girl) – two youngsters taking turns for each character. Young Simba requires a youth to act, sing, dance and be a mischievous presence in a major Act I role. It’s amazing what young professionals can do.

+ As wowing as “The Lion King” is in its visual effects, I can imagine a redo of the show for updates at some point based on what I’ve seen in other productions. Digital imagery is slipping onto the theater scene in effective ways. “Anastasia,” which played in January at the Fox Cities PAC, is loaded with new electronic visuals. Elton John, whose music is a part of “The Lion King,” is making his way around the globe with a 300-performance farewell tour with eye-popping LED effects that enhance his unique skills. Elton John’s tour stops Feb. 19 in Milwaukee, and here is my you-are-there view of that show that I saw in Fresno, Calif.: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large-wearegreenbay/warren-gerdscritic-at-large-review-elton-johns-farewell-show-a-technical-marvel-and-marvelous/1711258186.

+ In so many ways, “The Lion King” is the definition of a mega hit. It took an army to create the show, and it’s taking legions more to keep it going in positive ways.

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Creative: Music – Elton John; lyrics – Tim Rice from “The Lion King” animated film along with three new songs by John and Rice; additional musical material by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, Hans Zimmer; book – Roger Allers, Irene Mecchi; director – Julie Taymor; choreographer – Garth Fagan; scenic design – Richard Hudson; costume design – Julie Taymor; lighting design – Donald Holder; mask and puppet design – Julie Taymor, Michael Curry; sound design – Steve Canyon Kennedy; hair and make-up design – Michael Ward

Cast:

Scar – Spencer Plachy

Mufasa – Gerald Ramsey

Rafiki – Buyi Zama (Mpume Sikakane on 2.10.19 in 6:30 p.m. performance)

Timon – Nick Cordileone

Zazu – Greg Jackson

Pumbaa – Ben Lipitz

Simba – Jared Dixon

Nala – Nia Holloway

Banzai – Keith Bennett

Shenzi – Martina Sykes

Ed – Robbie Swift

Sarabi – Chante Carmel (Deidrea Halley on 2.10.19 in 6:30 p.m. performance)

Young Simba – alternated between Richard Phillips, Jr. and Walter Russell III

Young Nala – alternated between Brilyn Johnston, and Celina Smith

Also: Derek Adams, Kayla Rose Aimable, Andrew Arrington, William John Austin, Kyle R. Banks, Eric Bean, Jr, Thabani Buthelezi, Sasha Caicedo, Chante Carmel, Sean Aaron Carmon, Kyle Robert Carter, Thembelihle Cele, Daniela Cobb, Erynn Marie Dickerson, JoAnna Marie Ford, Tony Freeman, Mukelisiwe Goba, Deidrea Halley, William James Jr., Kolin Jerron, Alia Kache, Jane King, Brandon A. McCall, Christopher L. Mc Kenzie, Jr., Nhlanhla Ndlovu, Aaron Nelson, Christopher Sams, Jordan Samuels, Kaylin Seckel, Mpume Sikakane, Kevin Tate, Jennifer Theriot, Courtney Thomas, Shacura Wade and Zola Williams

Orchestra: Conductor – James Dodgson; keyboard 1 – Chris Neville; assistant conductor/keyboard 2 – Paul McCaffrey; guitar – Robert Tye; bass – Michael Brown; drums – Phil Martin; marimba – Mike Faue; percussion – Stefan Monssen, Raven Weizberg; flutes – Teresea Payne; French horn – Tim Riley; music coordinator – Michael Keller

Running time: Two hours, 37 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Feb. 17; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19, 20, 21, 22; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Feb. 24

Info: foxcitiespac.com

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Musical numbers

Act I

“Circle of Life” (Elton John and Tim Rice) – Rafiki, Ensemble

“Grasslands Chant” (Lebo M) – Company

“The Morning Report” (Elton John and Tim Rice) – Zazu, Young Simba and Mufasa

“The Lioness Hunt” (Lebo M) – Lionnesses

“I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” (Elton John and Tim Rice) – Young Simba, Young Nala, Zasu and Ensemble

“Chow Down” (Elton John and Tim Rice) – Shenzi, Banzai and Ed

“They Live in You” (Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Lebo M) – Mufasa and Company

“Be Prepared” (Elton John and Tim Rice) – Scar, Shenzi, Banzai, Ed and Company

“The Stampede” (Hans Zimmer and Lebo M) – Company

“Rafiki Mourns” (Hans Zimmer and Lebo M) – Rafiki, Sarabi, Young Nala and Ensemble

“Hakuna Matata” (Elton John and Tim Rice) – Timon, Pumbaa, Young Simba, Simba and Ensemble

Act II

“One by One” (Lebo M) – Company

“The Madness of King Scar” (Elton John and Tim Rice) – Scar, Zazu, Banzai, Shenzi, Ed and Nala

“Shadowland” (Hans Zimmer, Lebo M and Mark Mancina) – Nala and Company

“Endless Night” (Julie Taymor, Lebo M, Hans Zimmer and Jay Rifkin) – Simba and Company

“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” (Elton John and Tim Rice) – Timon, Pumbaa, Simba, Nala and Company

“He Lives in You” (Reprise) (Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Lebo M) – Rafiki, Simba and Company

“Simba Confronts Scar” (Mark Mancini and Robert Ehhai) – Instrumental

“King of Pride Rock”/“Circle of Life” (Reprise) (Hans Zimmer and Lebo M/Elton John and Tim Rice) – Company

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RELATED EVENT: “The Lion Sings Tonight,” 7 p.m. Feb. 18 – a charity performance with cast members singing their favorites in Kimberly Clark Theatre.

THE VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072. The seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The stage is 60 feet across and 40 feet high. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls up to the chandelier are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. Flat walls in the front third of the hall are salmon colored, while red pleated theatrical curtains dominate the rest of the side walls. The white acoustic wing over the stage looks like the underside of a sci-fi spacecraft. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level, a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye.

THE NAME: Thrivent Financial has roots in a life insurance company that was chartered in 1902 as Aid Association for Lutherans, based in Appleton. The corporate name has been Thrivent since 2002.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My latest book, “I Fell Out of a Tree in Fresno (and other writing adventures),” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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