Review: ‘The Lion King’ at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts (*****)

The company of “The Lion King” performs “The Circle of Life.” Photo Credit: Bringhoff-Mogenburg

by Otto Coelho III

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

I distinctly remember the first time I heard that Disney was going to produce “The Lion King” as a Broadway musical. I couldn’t figure out how they could stage the thing and have it not seem hokey. Were the performers going to wear furry costumes? I shuddered at the thought. I wasn’t able to see the show when it first premiered, but I did see a couple of numbers that were staged at the Tony awards and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It looked amazing. That was twenty-five years ago. Who knew that the show would still be touring, let alone still playing at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre to this day? All I have to say is that the touring production, now playing at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, proves why the show is still running. It’s what you look for in a live Broadway show: fabulous music, great performances, terrific sets, and a damn good time.

I have to admit that I had never seen the show before, so all I had to go on as a reference point was the movie. I won’t synopsize the show or the film at this point, but for the ten people in the United States that are unfamiliar with it, think Hamlet with music, animals, and a happy ending.

This company opened their run in San Jose with the energy and verve of an opening on Broadway. If you want to see a terrific show, you have until August 21st to catch it in San Jose before you have to drive to follow the tour to San Diego.

Standout performances requiring special mention have to begin with the wonderful Gugwana Dlamini as Rafiki. Dlamini begins the show leading the “The Circle of Life,” and she immediately gave me chills. At the end of the number, for some reason, I burst into tears. Gerald Ramsey’s Mufasa has a gentle yet powerful presence. At a recent performance, Jaylen
Lyndon Hunter and Scarlett London Diviney were terrific as Young Simba and Nala. Jürgen Hooper’s Zazu is hilarious, and Hooper is wonderful, letting the Zazu puppet take the focus. Spencer Plachy’s Scar is marvelously oily and sinister. As Timon and Pumbaa, Tony Freeman and John E. Brady seem to channel the best of a Catskills comedy duo. Darian Sanders is fabulously magnetic as Simba, and Kayla Cyphers are strong. The ensemble is terrific, singing and dancing with exuberant energy and precise harmonies.

Elton John and Tim Rice’s music and lyrics are fabulous, as are the additional music and lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer. The orchestra, ably led by Karl Shymanovitz is lovely, and it was such a great idea to put the percussionists at the sides of the stage. Julie Taymor’s direction is spectcular. Well, of course it is: her work won a Tony! Her costumes—from the citizens of Pride Rock to the wonderful traditional African human costumes for the ensemble that pop up in a couple of numbers—are simply gorgeous. The same goes for the mask and puppet designs by Taymor and Michael Curry. Richard Hudson’s sets are beautiful and work well.

“The Lion King” at the San Jose Center of the Performing Arts gives us what we expect from a professional touring production at its highest level. Kids will love it (the seven year old sitting next to me put down her handheld video game before curtain and did not touch it throughout the performance). You will too.

“The Lion King” continues at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts through August 21st. For further information, click here.

Please note: The San Jose Center for the Performing Arts has no COVID protocols in place for this production. Masks are completely optional, and they do not check for proof of vaccination or a recent COVID test.
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Rating: **** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“The Lion King.” Produced by Disney. Director: Julie Taymor.  Music & Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice. Additional Music & Lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, Hans Zimmer. Book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi. Adapted from the screenplay by Irene Mecchi & Jonathan Roberts & Linda Woolverton. Produced by Peter Schneider & Thomas Schumacher. Scenic Design: Richard Hudson. Costume Design: Julie Taymor. Lighting Design: Donald Holder. Mask & Puppet Design: Julie Taymor
& Michael Curry. Sound Design: Steve Canyon Kennedy. Hair & Makeup Design: Michael
Ward. Music Supervisor: Clement Ishmael. Music Director: Karl Shymanovitz. 

Cast:

Cast: Rafiki: Gugwana Dlamini. Mufasa: Gerald Ramsey. Sarabi: Jennifer Theriot. Zazu: Jürgen Hooper. Scar: Spencer Plachy. Young Simba (at certain performances): Jaylen Lyndon Hunter, Jordan Pendleton. Young Nala (at certain performances):Scarlett London Diviney, Farrah Wilson. Shenzi: :Martina Sykes. Banzai: Forest VanDyke. Ed: Robbie Swift. Timon: Tony Freeman. Pumbaa: John E. Brady. Simba: Darian Sanders. Nala: Kayla Cyphers. Ensemble Singers: Derek Adams, Isaiah Bailey, TyNia René Brandon, Thembelihle Cele, Daniela Cobb, Mukelisiwe Goba, Gabisile Manana, Nhanhla Ndlovu, Aaron Nelson, Jeremy Noel, Sicelo Ntshangase, Christopher Sams, Diamond Essence White. Ensemble Dancers: Iman Ayana,
Samantha Lauren Barriento, Layla Brent, Sasha Caicedo, Adrianne Chu, Marquis Floyd, Marquise Hitchcock, Jane King, Sayiga Eugene Peabody, Courtney Thomas, Sherman Wood.

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