Lion King Blogger Bash Review - Onstage and Backstage

Whatever you do, don’t miss the opening of the show. If you’re late, you’ll miss one of the highlights of The Lion King. Even the “turn off your cell phone” warning is fun, and what follows is pure magic. The same is true for the opening of Act II.

Brenda Mhlongo, as Rafiki, opens the show

When Brenda Mhlongo, the South African singer who plays Rafiki, the wise baboon shaman, sings that haunting call of hers, you’re transported to dawn in Africa: A huge sun rises and animals slowly fill the stage from the wings and stalk, stride, or flutter down the aisles of the theatre. The powerful chorus, scenic design by Richard Hudson, atmospheric lighting by Donald Holder, and the beating drums in the boxes on each side of the stage perfectly complete the scene.

If you can tear your eyes from Julie Taymor’s fantastical creations (actors in ingeniously designed and constructed animal costumes and masks), look at your fellow audience members. You’ll see adults with looks of wonder and delight usually associated with children. For two and a half hours, you’re not only in Africa but also in the fairyland of childhood.

Dionne Randolph as Mufasa

And kids love the show, too. One of the appealing elements of the performance comes courtesy of the audience, in the laughter of children. At the performance I attended, one child laughed at a joke well past the amusement of the adults, who laughed all over again in response.

The musical is based on the Disney cartoon of the same name, and Disney knows how to keep the action moving in this coming-of-age story about a young lion, Simba, who faces and overcomes challenges as he matures.

There are frequent changes to the stage settings through the use of a few large set pieces, dramatic lighting, and of course Taymor’s costumes, masks, and puppets.

Lioness dance

There’s humor of all types, from silliness and fart jokes to sight gags and word play.  There’s African music and choreography like that of South African a cappella singing group Ladysmith Black Mombazo, but there’s also a tango, something that sounds like a bit of Mozart, and a rock song with electric guitar.

The typical Disney sidekicks of the hero include Zazu the bird, delightfully played by Tony Freeman, who has expert comic timing and who deftly moves not only himself, but also his puppet. Timon the meerkat ( Nick Cordileone) and the Pumbaa the warthog ( Ben Lipitz) are both funny and dear and audience favorites too.

Disney contributed a lot, but it’s Julie Taymor’s startling creativity that translates all the story ideas and characters so vividly to the stage.

J. Anthony Crane as Scar and Dionne Randolph as Mufasa face off

And of course it’s the cast that brings all these elements to life. It’s a wonderful cast, without a weak link. Dionne Randolph is Mufasa, the wise leader of the pride and loving father to his son, Simba. Jerome Stephens, Jr. and Kolton Stewart are double cast as Young Simba, and Monique Lee and Madai Monica Williams alternate as Young Nala. They nicely foreshadow the actors Adam Jacobs as the adult Simba and Syndee Winters as Nala, both of whom sing and move beautifully.

J. Anthony Crane is the villanous Scar

J. Anthony Crane makes a perfectly villainous Scar, Simba’s nasty uncle. His three evil hyena companions are played by Omari Tau, Monica L. Patton, and Ben Roseberry.

The tree of life, with grass

The show would be thin, however, without the impressive group of singers and dancers who fill the stage with song and movement and spectacle—or sometimes just grass. (Some of the resumes of these performers may have Lion King credits with roles including grass or gazelle, and  Erynn Marie Dickerson can add Ant Hill Lady.) I kept an eye out for the Cheetah, beautifully created by Sharron Williams in her musical theater debut. Vusi B. Mhlongo, from Durban, South Africa, joined Brenda Mhlongo in a moving duet at a mournful moment in the action.

The pride of the show: the ensemble

Several members of the talented cast answered questions after a recent performance and provided some insights into the backstage reality that goes into creating the onstage magic.

Dancer/singers Selena Moshell and John Sloan III agreed about the need for the services of the physical therapist who travels with the touring company.  Dancing eight shows a week on a steel supported stage without much “give” can lead to knee, joint, and back issues and sometimes a medical leave.

Ben Lipitz, who has been with the show for eight years, plays Pumbaa the warthog. He spends about 40 minutes putting on his make-up, which was originally manufactured for burn victims. He spends another 15 to 20 minutes removing the make-up at the end of the show.

Although his big, bulky costume weighs 46 pounds, Lipitz says its ingenious design allows that weight to be manageable. And he says that the costume not only looks effective but also helped to create the animal’s character:

“The costume determined the side-to-side gait of the warthog. It took months of experimenting while looking in a mirror to learn to isolate movements and to use the costume to full advantage.”

Other cast members also talked about the preparation for their roles.

Selena Moshell, who has 12 costume changes as animals and a plant, says the dancers watched videos of animals to prepare for their movements, but added, “You take cues from the puppets.”

Syndee Winters, who plays the adult Nala, spoke about the Balinese dance classes taken by the lead lions, which added small but telling inflections to their movements. For instance, during the performance I had noticed the lions’ small arching movement of the neck and head that initiated the act of turning to stalk away.

Sometimes preparation for a part requires a lifetime. J. Anthony Crane, who deliciously plays the evil Scar, says all his previous professional work in New York and L.A., in straight plays, film, and television, “barely prepared” him for The Lion King, his second musical.

All the preparation is for engagement with an audience. Crane says he loves live theater because he enjoys the response of the audience.

All the work is worth it for Syndee Winters. After a degree in musical theatre and gigs as a wedding singer and in-house anthem singer for Madison Square Garden,   she has achieved a longtime goal. “I saw The Lion King when I was a kid, and I always wanted to be in it.”

Performances through Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph St, Chicago IL

Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m.;
Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m.;
Sunday evenings at 6:30 p.m.;
Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.;
Sunday matinees at 1 p.m.;
Tuesday performances on October 26, November 16, and November 23 at 7:30 p.m.;
Friday, November 26 at 2 p.m.

No performance on Thursday, November 25 in observance of Thanksgiving.

Tickets start as low as $25. Premium Ticket Packages include a prime seat location, commemorative souvenir program, and an exclusive merchandise item

Tickets are available at the following:
All Broadway In Chicago box offices (24 W. Randolph, 151 W. Randolph, and 18 W. Monroe)
Broadway In Chicago Ticket Line (800) 775-2000
All Ticketmaster retail locations, including Hot Tix, and select Carson Pirie Scott, Coconuts, and fye stores
Tickets online at
Orders for groups of 15 or more may be placed by calling (312) 977-1710.

Photos: Joan Marcus




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