Fox Cities Does Broadway: The Lion King
(Story previously published in Fox Valley Scene Newspaper)
The sun slowly rose up into the dawn sky, an orange glowing ball throwing fiery hues on the landscape below. Rhythmic drumming filled the air as the long lanky frame of a giraffe, strolling confidently on lengthy legs, appeared on the horizon. Immediately followed by another.
Three majestic zebras sauntered under the watchful eye of a skulking leopard, and a herd of graceful gazelles leaped nearby. Two lumbering elephants appeared, with curious birds circling overhead.
It was a spectacular scene one might envision playing out in the peak of summer, somewhere on the African continent. I didn’t expect something like this to unfold at the end of winter, in the American mid-west.
The Fox Cities Performing Arts Centre in Appleton, Wisconsin, was filled to capacity for the Broadway touring production The Lion King. The four-week run was expected to sell-out, so I felt fortunate to secure seats on the second night along with a handful of writing colleagues from across Canada and the US.
This was my second Broadway play, after experiencing Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark in New York City a few months ago. That phenomenal performance raised the bar way up, leaving me with expectations that were now hovering in the stratosphere. I wasn’t sure what to expect that night in Wisconsin.
I had seen The Lion King animated movie years ago, and wondered how they could possibly recreate those memorable digital characters for stage. My mind conjured up an image of cartoonish-looking costumes, similar to what you’d see at Disneyland. But what my eyes saw was something totally different.
The show opened with an African safari symphony of sound and sights, steeped in rich and vibrant tints and textures. Right from the get-go the driving beat had me pulsating in my seat, and the action that covered the stage, moved down the aisles, and emerged on balconies drew my attention from setting to another.
Most intriguing was how they created the animals – each one being part human, part creature. Each animalized person wore a costume so elaborate it was hard to tell where real body ended and protruding parts and limbs began. Both entities became blended into one through colour and movement, using dance and puppeteering in such a way that you almost forgot there were people onstage. It was brilliant.
People in costume also created the tundra, wearing flowing skirts with bottom hoops that maintained bulk and flare. On top of their heads were tufts of what looked like artificial turf. When they danced, the scene resembled tall grass blowing in the wind. The occasional use of small animal figures moving through the grass – like lion father and cub, for example – would establish the scene and set the stage for the action to continue with larger life-size doppelgangers.
Then of course, there was the music, consisting of African beats and rhythms, interspersed with melodious songs written by Elton John and Tim Rice. We could feel the love that night.
Since most people have long been familiar with The Lion King story, I won’t go into details. If you aren’t familiar with the plot, then rest assured you’ll be in for a pleasant and enjoyable journey. I appreciated rediscovering the story once again.
I will tell you that overall, the entire evening was a fantastical mixture of artistry and agility, performance and motion. It was a pure delight, making for one magical theatrical night capable of transporting you to another exotic place and time for two-and-a-half hours. With no cares or worries in the world.
Hakuna matata, baby.
(Photos provided by Fox Cities Performing Arts Center)