The ingenious use of masks and puppets, as well as imaginative costuming, makes The Lion King musical a real romp through the Serengeti Plains.
Contributed By Yong Yung Shin
Scenes from the Disney animated film naturally come to mind at the mention of The Lion King—a great pull factor, especially for those who are not regular theater-goers, is the re-creation of it all from screen to stage.
Two words to describe its opening night performance at the Sands Theater on March 2: fantastical and engrossing.
The opening scene is one of pure aural and visual poetry, as Rafiki the baboon welcomes the birth of little Simba with the rousing theme song “Circle Of Life,” and the other animals gallop gracefully across the stage, the rising sun in the background.
With animal characters, fluidity of movement as well as the humanity of the characters’ expressions are perhaps the biggest obstacles to surmount, but the mask, puppet and costume design helmed by director Julie Taymor (whose latest musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark opens on Broadway in June) and aided by world puppet expert Michael Curry enables the audience to see the characters as animal and human at the same time—an effect Taymor dubs “the double event.”
Standout scenes include the wildebeest stampede where King Mufasa saves his son before meeting his death—it’s an amazing marriage of shadow puppetry, lighting and set design that evokes the claustrophobia of being trapped in a gorge and faced with the prospect of being pulverized by a thousand hooves. Another stellar scene is when Mufasa appears as a vision in the night sky before a despondent Simba—an audible intake of breaths sounded across the hall as Mufasa’s face materialized.
Of course, there is the music. Memorable as it already is with Elton John’s original compositions, the score is bolstered by additional songs featuring lots of African choral chants. “Shadowland,” performed by Nala the lioness on the eve of her departure from the Pride Lands to seek help against the destructive devices of Scar, is a soulful anthem that spells yearning as much as patriotic urgency.
Lead actors Gugwana Dlamini and Puleng March from South Africa as well as Jonathan Andrew Hume, Patrick Brown and Jee-L Guizonne shine in their roles as Rafiki, Nala, Simba, Scar and Mufasa respectively, but it is the supporting characters who threaten to steal the show.
Right down to every delirious twitch, the reimaging and portrayal of the three evil hyenas is life-sized puppetry at its best, the details of which come through all the more during the dimmer scenes and all you see are their cowed silhouettes. On the other hand, the traditional form of Japanese puppetry called banraku, where a visible puppeteer manipulates the puppet, is used to great effect in the character of the wise-cracking meerkat Timon, played by New Zealand’s Jamie McGregor—one can imagine what a strenuous affair it is to be pulling the strings of a life-size puppet, as opposed to just donning a mask or corset.
The hype is justified, the spectacle worth the price. The Lion King musical is one of the best things to have come to Marina Bay Sands.
The Lion King plays Tuesday to Sunday evenings at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets from SISTIC, Sands Theater Box Office or www.thelionking.com.sg from S$65 to S$240.
Facts And Figures
• The cast of 51 hail from 8 countries in 5 continents.
• It took more than 17,000 hours to build the show’s many masks and more than 200 puppets.
• Lighting designer, Donald Holder, used nearly 700 lighting instruments to create the show’s lighting plot.
• All of the corsets worn by the lionesses are hand-beaded using a range of different materials, including shells, glass, ceramics, fish bones, copper and bronze. Each bead is sewn on by hand.