Last week I saw the touring production of The Lion King at The Boston Opera House. It was okay. I say it was only okay not because it was anything less than a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience but because the piece itself is capable of being so much more. During its extended stay in Toronto a few years back, I saw The Lion King on two different occasions and each time came away with the same feeling of grandeur, spectacle and amazement at what I had just seen. The Lion King, with its innovative (read: genius) artistic design and translation from film to stage and its beautiful musicality, is the type of show that really makes an impression on its audience.
In the sitcom Sports Night, when Dana (Felicity Huffman), a theatre cynic, returns from seeing The Lion King for the first time, she exclaims with amazement "I didn't know we could do that". That's what The Lion King did to me the first times I saw it. I didn't know we could turn human beings into strangely realistic representations of the animal kingdom's most complex beasts like lions, cheetahs, antelope, hyenas, buzzards and baboons. I didn't know we could make Hamlet into a children's movie, not to mention making a children's cartoon into a thought-provoking stage spectacle for all ages. I didn't know some of the most haunting musical theatre ballads ever written could be the work of an aging popstar. I didn't know that we could stage a stampede in a proscenium arch or make a ghost appear reflected in a pool of water or bring a life-sized elephant down the aisle of a theatre. I didn't know we could do that. But The Lion King, as envisioned by the unparalleledly innovative director Julie Taymor, showed me that we could. But it wasn't just that. The Lion King begins with a solo voice as powerful as thunder, Rafiki summoning the animals. Mustafa lives and breathes kinship, standing tall with incredible warmth mixed with power. The beautiful African-influenced choreography is executed with perfect synchronization; each note of the libretto is hit with perfect vocal technique and character detail. The animal realities become incidental as the story of the characters themselves takes centre stage.
But what I saw last week at the Opera House was something different. It was just as beautiful, the colours vibrant, the iconic costumes in tact. The music was all there, as beautifully orchestrated as ever. And the story was the same: all poignance wrapped in rough and tumble fun. But the production lacked the vibrancy of the previous one. The Rafiki understudy was shrill, her notes too big for her voice and her acting simply caricature. Mustafa was short and tough, lacking the natural kingly charisma the role requires; his "lion walk" taking precedence over his integral character and his voice, though strong, lacked the wisdom needed for a convincing "They Live in You". Young Simba lacked grounding, pouncing around the stage on spindly legs. His older counterpart fared better, making a pitch-perfect entrance at the end of Act One as Hakuna Matata sends the audience out to intermission. But he faded as the production wore on, stumbling under the weight of some of his more demanding vocals like "Endless Night". The dancing, though always impressive, lacked verve, as did the animal chorus in general. The hyenas, Zazoo, Timon, Poomba and Scar were all par for the course in generous roles geared for audience appreciation. But overall, the cast lacked the pizazz needed to support such a wonderful story, expert libretto and perfect production design.
The shining light in the cast was Nala, both young and old. The young Nala brought energy and a wonderfully fun sense of false maturity to the first act, dragging a simpering young Simba up with her. Grown Nala's arrival in the second act brought further lovely surprises as she proved to be both the most engaging actor and the most soulful and capable singer of the lot. She masterfully handled the prideful ballad "Shadowland", some of the hardest vocals in the whole production, then went on to highlight audience favourite "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" with strength and energy unparalleled by her costars. She brought up the level of verve on the stage whenever she entered and even reinvigorated her Simba with wonderful stage chemistry.
Overall, the touring production of The Lion King is a weak shadow of what a great company could do with it. But at the end of the day it's still The Lion King. It's still spectacular, awe-inspiring and momentous in itself, regardless of what the company does with it.