Review: Disney's The Lion King at Sunderland Empire
One of the most spectacular shows we've seen at Sunderland Empire, here's what to expect from Disney's internationally-acclaimed The Lion King
The lights dim and the curtain rises. You hear the iconic opening notes of the Circle of Life surging through the theatre and suddenly the stage is alive with colour as animals appear from every corner. Gazelles leap, birds soar in the rafters and an almost life-sized elephant and her calf lumber through the stalls. That's how Disney’s The Lion King started at Sunderland Empire, and the only way to describe it is spectacular.
Admittedly we had high hopes – after all you don’t become the best-selling musical of all time for no reason – however nothing can prepare you for the impact of this opening act. While it might not be the obvious choice to adapt for the stage, in that moment you are transported to the Serengeti Plains as the animals climb on stage, species by species.
For those who have been living under a (Pride) rock, The Lion King tells the story of Simba's epic adventures, as he struggles with the responsibilities of adulthood and becoming king. When his father dies, Simba’s evil uncle blames him for the death, exiling the young cub and taking the throne for himself. Over time, and with a little help from his friends, Simba realises it wasn’t his fault at all and returns to his homeland to take back the kingdom.
Much of the show's charm came from Richard Hudson’s set design and the masks and puppetry of Julie Taymor and Michael Curry. The on-stage production uses 232 puppets to help this story roar into life, and you can expect everything from rod and shadow puppets, to full costume puppets and masks. Cast members also brought various scenes to life as a living, breathing landscape. For example, the grasslands are depicted by cast wearing grass pallets on their heads as they gracefully sway in unison.
The original score from the animated film was expanded for the stage and, now featuring 15 musical numbers, the resulting sound of The Lion King is a fusion of Western pop music and the distinctive sounds and rhythms of Africa. A core ingredient of the music was the energy, which came from percussionists housed both in the orchestra pit and in two boxes either side of the auditorium. Highlights of the show were chants and group numbers which honour the continent in which it’s based, and the show is performed by a majority black cast.
For us the stand-out performance had to be Rafiki, played by Thandalize Soni. A baboon with shamanic abilities, Rafiki is the spiritual guide of the story, aiding characters (particuarly Simba) in fulfilling their destiny. From the details on her costume, to the way she spoke to the audience in another language, Thandalize lived the role.
Not to mention the way she used her incredible singing voice. Her solo, spine-tingling acapella was the first sound of the show, while her performance of Rafiki Mourns sung in Zulu was equally impressive. Another notable vocal performance was from Nokwanda Khuzwayo who played the role of adult Nala. Her rendition of Shadowland, a track written specifically for the musical, was one of the most beautiful moments of the night.
From the silhouettes and sunsets of the pridelands, to the costumes and puppets that convincingly turned the cast into animals, The Lion King offered everything we could wish for from an on-stage African savannah and the standing ovation at the end of the performance was testament to the fact that the whole theatre enjoyed it just as much as us. A true crowd pleaser, The Lion King is a show that demands to be seen.