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REVIEW: The Lion King at Sunderland Empire


The Lion King

Sunderland Empire

Until Saturday 6th May 2023

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The Disney classic musical, based upon the 1994 hit movie, has landed in Wearside for a seven week run. The Lion King is a stage musical with music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, and a book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi and thus it has some pedigree. Why is this musical so popular? All will be revealed...

But first a warning for those who are not great at timekeeping. There is a strict rule that latecomers are not allowed to enter the auditorium for the first 15 minutes. This helps ensure that those on time are able to enjoy the pageantry of the opening sequence. The dawn of this show, set to the hit Circle Of Life, is well worth ensuring that you arrive promptly. It is certainly one part that is lasting in the memory. As Rafiki the mandrill (Thandazile Soni) bursts into song the animals assemble through the theatre - and certainly from the stalls it was a spectacle.

The reason for the celebration is that the King lion Mufasa (Jean-Luc Guizonne) and the Queen Sarabi (Tanisha-Mae Brown) have given birth to their heir Simba. Alas this increases the jealousy in Mufasa's brother Scar (Richard Hurst) as he is no longer second in line to the throne. As a result Scar decides to cast a plan to gain control.

Now if this plot line sounds familiar then it is a well used trope - as many will point out William Shakespeare used it in Hamlet. But - it isn't the first time someone has updated one of Bill's ideas.

Young Simba, and his future Queen are each performed by six different actors during the run. On press night we had an amazing pair in the shape of Ro'Jae Simpson as Simba and Gabrielle McDonald as Nala. Both delivering a confident performance that was more mature than their chronological age. 

A number of funny characters help develop the story including Zazu, a hornbill operated and voiced by Matthew Forbes who was able to be very much a part of the action rather than just relying on the puppet itself. Likewise, SImba's two friends in exile, the warthog Pumbaa and the meerkat Timon are very much brought to life by Carl Sanderson and Alan McHale. The work of these three actors shows how much puppetry and interaction with an audience has developed in recent times.

When young Simba grows into an adolescent, the role is taken over by Kyle Richardson who is able to convey the emotional rollercoaster that everyone gets whilst turning into an adult - especially one who is supposed to be a leader.

One aspect that audiences talk about is how the animals come to life. Richard Hurst, as one example, is able to deliver the passion of the ambitious Uncle Scar. This is a challenge given the wonderful costume, make up and lion mask. Somehow it is pulled off. A large ensemble use dance, masks and puppetry to bring the story to life. Somehow - it works as a concept.

Music is a major part of this show and the venue is put to good use. Two of the musicians (Atanas Dochev and Jack McCarthy) are positioned at the stage end of the Grand Circle rather than being in the orchestra pit. The sounds that they create to the left and right of the audience add a real distinctive dimension to the action.

I had seen the show before, in the West End, and for some reason I enjoyed watching it for a second time in Sunderland much more. Yes there are slight differences in the production but I feel that the cast really brough the story to life much more this time around. 

The Lion King is a real treat - it is funny, well staged and full of action. Somehow an animation about animals has been successfully transferred to the stage. It achieves a rare feat in, occasionally, filling the stage but not losing the point of the action. Shakespeare would approve.

Review: Stephen Oliver

Photos: © DIsney

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