THIS is the fourth time that the Disney corporation has taken over Bristol Hippodrome to present probably its most spectacular production, The Lion King. Although the production has been scaled down a little from its first visit – when the theatre had to be closed for nearly two weeks to prepare it for opening night – this is still the biggest and most spectacular show to be seen at the venue, to which spectacle is no stranger, throughout 2023.
Visually, with a wonderful array of masks and costumes turning actors into animals, spectacular scene changes, lighting and sound effects, this is a breathtaking production. And with typical Disney efficiency, this part of the production, combined with preset musical backing that blends ideally with the perfectly-delivered vocals, never is an error in sight.
In some ways it all reminds you of a meal in one of those themed eating places where you are never disappointed or surprised because the “fayre” is guaranteed to be the same in any of their outlets from Glasgow via Cardiff to Plymouth, London or Bristol. If ever a show delivered what is written on the tin, this one can claim that distinction. In doing so they please and entertain their audiences, the majority of whom, through the 1994 film or seeing the stage version before, know every word and note and are not interested in any deviations. And the few who come upon the production with fresh eyes are quickly captivated by the visual treats, with added musical delights from Elton John and Tim Rice, enhancing every aspect of the story.
Because so many know The Lion King through the animated film, voiced by a string a famous actors, what a temptation it must be for Jean-Luc Guizonne (Mufasa) and Bath-born Tobacco Theatre, Bristol-trained Richard Hurst (Scar) to mimic their illustrious predecessors – as it is for others to use the same tones as Whoopi Goldberg and Rowan Atkinson. Under the watchful eye of director Julie Taymor, this was never an option. Encased in some of the magnificent masks and costumes that Julie also designed, Jean-Luc’s beautifully understated Mufasa and Richard, sailing near the overacting wind but never overstepping the mark, fought out their own, no-pale-copy, battle of good versus evil.
Aided by some outstanding puppetry, each animal was created with great ingenuity and used to equally good effect to bring out the grace and manic hyperactivity in Garth Fagan’s choreography, virtually every member of the ensemble adding to the pictorial telling of the story. Encased in a production so prepackaged as this one, it would be easy for it to look and sound dull and robotic, but with Kyle Richardson as the troubled Simba, Nokwanda Khuzwayo (Nala) and Zodwa Mrasi sweeping in from the ensemble to replace Thandazile Soni, and make an outstanding contribution as Rafiki, the production looked and sounded as fresh as it did when it made its first appearance.
Capturing its audience from that stunning opening as the animals gather on stage after processing round the audience, this production offers few surprises, but delivers everything it promises – and no doubt will continue to do so from here on in until its final night at the Bristol Hippodrome on Saturday 1st July.
Photographs by Johann Persson