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The Lion King: a brightly coloured spectacle with a seriousness of purpose

Jelani Remy plays Simba.

Joan Marcus/Mirvish

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice. Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi.
Jelani Remy
Princess of Wales Theatre

Since the last time it roared through Toronto, The Lion King has broken a couple more records. The 1997 musical pawed the title of highest-grossing Broadway show of all time away from The Phantom of the Opera in 2012, and was crowned the first $1-billion (U.S.) New York show ever this October. Worldwide, you can multiply the box-office haul for this puppet-packed spectacle by five.

But other things have happened since The Lion King last passed through, too. Julie Taymor, the show's director, has become better known for the super-powered slip-up that was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, while The Book of Mormon has challenged the supremacy of The Lion King on Broadway – not just in terms of ticket prices, but philosophically and politically. With its satiric jabs at Taymor's magical but generic depiction of Africa and Africans, it's perhaps the first hit musical to be, in part, a cultural critique of another hit musical.

So, what is it to walk into The Lion King for the first time in 2014 rather than 1997? Fortunately, I can be a test case, as I somehow managed to miss the show during the five years it was in Toronto and on its subsequent return visits. The touring production at the Princess of Wales was my introduction to the stage version of the story of Simba – a lion cub who loses his father, grows up in exile, then swallows his pride to return to save his pride from his evil uncle, Scar.

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What stood out for me in this brightly coloured spectacle were the lack of irony and seriousness of purpose. Adapted from the film, the story already had the weight of myth, but Taymor's production only amplifies that tone. Compared with the bling-filled superficiality of Aladdin, the most recent Disney musical to pass through Toronto, here we have a tale that talks about responsibility and legacy and taps into eternal truths about the circle of life – which may just be a fancy way of saying the food chain.

The Lion King was a lot of what I expected, but the New Age Darwinist dance sequence dedicated to the beauty of lions eating antelopes was a surprise.

The show's approach to romance is decidedly un-Broadway as well. Indeed, when Simba (played by a charming Jelani Remy) and Nala (Nia Holloway) reunite as adults, their love isn't depicted as individualistic in the American fashion, but as merely – or perhaps magnificently – part of that circle of life.

There's a fascinating creative friction between Elton John's pop score and South African composer Lebohang Morake a.k.a. Lebo M's arrangements. If you've mostly heard the Elton version of Can You Feel the Love Tonight?, then the arrangement in the musical is at first baffling; rhythmically, it's so on-the-beat, it doesn't sound sexy or seductive at all. But then you realize it ties into this different, spiritual philosophy about sex – a coming-of-age ritual, as joyous and free from the legacy of Western religious guilt.

Yes, The Lion King is a sex-positive family musical, though I should emphasize it is for the whole family. Taymor's masterful mixture of puppet styles is the main appeal for the kids, I imagine. There are anthropomorphized animals that look pretty much the same as in the movie for all the comic-relief characters – whether for the hornbill Zazu or the double-act of Timon and Pumbaa. Then, there are the nameless animals, flocks of birds nesting upon human shoulders.

But Simba and Nala and Mustafa wear wooden faces on the top of their heads, to the extent that you might even imagine this is a pride of humans worshiping lions rather than lions. And Rafiki, a shaman, is only identified as a baboon by her big strapped-on bottom; she sings in a variety of African languages including Zulu, and Brown Lindiwe Mkhize is astonishing in the role.

Occasionally, crowds of colourful, smiling Africans will come on to sing a song, making us wonder if it's them telling us this tale. If so though, why are they telling an African story with puppets influenced by Japanese Bunraku and shadow puppetry influenced by Wayang Kulit?

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While there may be legitimate questions to be raised about Taymor's cobbled-together, "world" aesthetic, the blurry lines between cultures, and between human and puppet are pleasing on another level. I loved, for instance, that Zazu, operated by a blue-faced man in a bowler hat (Andrew Gorrell), seems to have wandered in from a Cirque du Soleil show.

Ultimately, all that business about the billions of dollars this show has brought it – it feels a little crass to even mention it, really. Because, despite the high-priced souvenirs in the lobby, all I felt reverberating through the Princess of Wales on Thursday night was love.

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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