Palace Theatre, Manchester
Until Saturday 11th March 2023
The atmosphere inside the theatre last night was electric as Disney’s The Lion King opened its mammoth and newly extended 19-week run at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, which will now take it through to 11th March 2023. Originally scheduled to open in October 2020, but postponed due to the COVID pandemic, audiences have had to wait patiently for the rescheduled dates to arrive, but that wait was well worth it, and on the strength of last night’s performance, surely nobody could have left the theatre disappointed.
Twenty-five years on from its original premiere there isn’t a great deal left to say about Julie Taymor’s landmark production except, however, to simply echo the thoughts of many others in that it remains one of the most spectacular and innovative productions the theatre has seen; a joyous, rousing celebration of African culture, dazzling stagecraft and thrilling artistry. What’s more, it boasts what is surely the most awe-inspiring opening in the musical theatre canon.
Audience members young and old sit wide-eyed and beaming from ear to ear as a lone cheetah and two stilted giraffes lead a chorus of animal puppets – including a life-sized elephant and calf, which enter (with many others) through the stalls – for the iconic Circle Of Life. It is an incredibly powerful spectacle that really sets the bar for the rest of the show, and feels incredibly moving as the stirring music and vocals begin to swell.
Featuring those majestic songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, a book by Roger Allers (who co-directed the film with Rob Minkoff) and Irene Mecchi (who co-wrote the original screenplay with Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton), along with additional music and lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer, The Lion King is a flawless adaptation of one of the most beloved films of them all. Taymor’s ingenious staging still feels as sublime and ground-breaking as it must have done when it was first presented back in 1997.
The show features a total of 232 puppets, incorporating rod puppets, shadow puppetry and full-sized puppets, some of which are inspired by Japanese Bunraku puppetry. Much like the monumental War Horse, the quality of the puppets, combined with the talent and skill of the cast and puppeteers, really does make you forget there are people operating them. Everything just feels so fluid and so slick to the point where performers and design elements simply become one, whether it be the animals or set features as seen with the grasslands costumes.
Most of the audience will know the story backwards, mouth along with every lyric, and probably all the dialogue too, but the show is so beautifully crafted, so innovative that it takes the cherished film and transforms it into something that still feels fresh and new. It’s richer, more expansive, and more alive. It is a profound and uplifting celebration of Africa, its culture and its music.
With an extraordinary company of nearly forty it seems unfair to single out individual performances as each and every member of the cast excels in their own right. The Lion King is very much an ensemble piece and the talent, skill and puppetry displayed throughout the production is simply outstanding. It is lovely to see that the cast look like they are having as much fun as the audience are watching them.
Musical Director Jon Aspital conducts a exceptional band of eleven, with two percussionists even taking up two of the boxes out in the auditorium, either side of the stage. The score is iconic and the music is astonishing. The band do it full justice.
Staging a production like this is a real feat so special mention must go to the behind the scenes crew who help bring the technical elements to life.
There is a reason The Lion King continues to pack out houses at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway (where it is now the third longest running show in Broadway history), at the Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End and in other international productions and tours all around the world. The appeal is universal, the heartwarming (and often heartbreaking) tale resonates with everyone and the production is just so accessible.
A true theatrical spectacle and an utterly sublime production. Joyous, overwhelming and exhilarating.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes (approx.), including one 15-minute interval.
Final Performance at the Palace Theatre, Manchester: 11th March 2023.
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