Pride Rock of Ages: The Lion King musical press call

For inSing

PRIDE ROCK OF AGES: THE LION KING MUSICAL PRESS CALL

inSing is transported to the plains of Africa for a peek at The Lion King musical

By Jedd Jong

“Nants ingonyama! bagithi Baba!”

That’s the evocative cry by Lebo M. which opens the 1994 animated film The Lion King. It’s Zulu for “Here comes a lion, Father” –  and several lions have arrived back at the Marina Bay Sands Theatre in Singapore.

The Lion King stage musical premiered in 1997 and took the world by storm. It has gone on to become the world’s top-grossing musical, and when it first came to Singapore in 2011, enjoyed a record-breaking eight-month-long run.

The show features an eclectic blend of music, incorporating the expanded film score by Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin, songs by Elton John, Tim Rice, Lebo M., director Julie Taymor and Robert Elhai.

Even more than its sound, it is the look of The Lion King that has captivated theatre-going audiences around the world. Taymor approached translating the animated film to the stage with a specific vision, incorporating puppetry inspired by traditional Balinese, Javanese and Japanese dance and theatre. Technical innovations were married with a variety of cultural inspirations, creating a unique theatrical presentation.

Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Lion King tells the story of Simba, who suffers a tragic loss in his childhood and must return to rescue the kingdom he has fled, where his evil uncle Scar now rules.

The 2018 international tour presented by The Michael Cassel group in association with Disney Theatrical Productions enjoyed a run in Manila before transferring to Singapore. There’s an emphasis on ‘international’ – cast members from 19 countries including South Africa, New Zealand, Mexico, China, Australia, and the United Kingdom comprise the ensemble.

This iteration of the show began with casting and rehearsals in South Africa, with the participation of co-composer Lebo M and the show’s original director Taymor.

“It’s been quite an adventure, a lot of milestones, too many to remember,” Lebo said wistfully.

When Lebo M. was brought into the studio by Hans Zimmer to sing a demo, the animated film didn’t even have an official title yet. What could’ve been just another gig for the South African singer wound up changing his life. “It turns out that the demo I did, “Nants ingonyama”, what you hear around the world for the last 25 years is exactly what it was when we did the demo. Two takes.”

It’s clear that even after all this time, Lebo M. is deeply attached to the show. “It keeps you very busy, keeps you fresh, you don’t feel like you’re doing the same thing for 22 years,” he remarked, adding that “when you have a project like this, it’s very hard to do something else.”

Michael Cassel and Lebo M.

Australian producer Michael Cassel also has a history with the show – he was responsible for setting up Disney Theatrical in Australia at age 21 in 2002. “It’s where I learned how to be a producer,” Cassel said of The Lion King. Cassel promises that the experience that audiences watching the show in Singapore will get is exactly the same as what they can expect from a Broadway or West End production of The Lion King. “It’s the same show. There are no changes, no compromises, no reductions to the show,” Cassel declared. He added that interest in the Singapore season has already “exceeded expectations”.

At the press call, the opening number “Circle of Life” was performed. It’s a truly overwhelming piece in which audiences first witness the various types of puppetry and movement used to bring animals from cheetahs to elephants to life. Right out the gate, the show’s magic embraces the audience.

“I love watching the reaction of the audience during “Circle of Life”. I’ve seen grown men cry,” dance captain Theresa Nguyen commented.

The show is a physically intensive one that requires its performers to be skilled in multiple disciplines. “We have some of the best dancers in this company, so I was very fortunate to start with highly technical, highly trained and very strong performers,” Nguyen said of the ensemble. “It’s a real challenge to put on a puppet on your head, or a cheetah on your back, or to carry heavy shields and dance and tell a story.”

For Jonathan Andrew Hume, who plays Simba, returning to Singapore with The Lion King holds a special significance. Hume joined the ensemble of the show in the West End in 2001, and worked his way up to audition for the role of Simba in 2010. In 2011, he starred as Simba when the show came to Singapore.

“To be able to come back to Singapore to do the show which is so special to me, it was my crowning of being Simba, I really feel like I’m coming home,” Hume said. Things have come full circle for him – a circle of life, if you will.

Speaking about the international cast and crew, Hume said “We rely on each other, we support each other and we respect each other – not just onstage, but offstage. That kind of relationship only breeds a beautiful performance that you see every single day on the show.”

Noxolo Dlamini and Jonathan Andrew Hume

Noxolo Dlamini stars opposite Hume as Nala, Simba’s childhood friend-turned-love-interest. This writer asked about her reaction to Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, which recently brought cultural elements from across the African continent to mass audiences.

“Watching Black Panther was absolutely incredible because I’m from South Africa and it was lovely to see me being represented in a Hollywood film, and The Lion King is just the same,” Dlamini observed. “It’s beautiful because we love to share our culture, and I think with any culture all around the world, it’s so beautiful to see people appreciate your culture.”

The many demands of the roles require the cast to be in peak physical condition. “I try to eat well. Singapore has such good food and I love good food, but I also need to remember that I have a job to do,” Dlamini quipped with a laugh. “It’s just remembering that I need to keep in shape and I need that corset to fit me over the next three months,” she said, adding “I do it for Nala.”

The father-son relationship between Mufasa and Simba is at the emotional core of the show. Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, who plays Mufasa, drew on his personal background for his interpretation of the role. “I come from a very spiritual family and tradition myself, as a Zulu man. I believe in my ancestors as well. It helps to have that connection when Mufasa has to impart his life lessons and his traditions and his spirituality to Young Simba.”

Antony Lawrence and Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile

Even out of costume during our interview, Khanyile projects the ideal blend of regalness and warmth. Speaking about how Mufasa must be both a king and a father, Khanyile mused “it’s a balance that he has to find. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know he’s running out of time, but he has a sense that he has to get this message across to [Simba] now. He has to take the mask off at certain points and be a father and just not be the king at all, and there’s a different Mufasa that comes out in that instance.”

Khanyile takes the expectations audiences will have of him in his stride. “Everyone remembers the first time they saw The Lion King, and when Mufasa dies, how they felt,” he said. “Having that as something that I am entrusted with to give to an audience eight times a week is a huge responsibility.” Rather than being daunted by it, Khanyile is empowered by the expectations. “I know that I have to do the best and I know that I have to enjoy it, because if I’m enjoying it, then the audience gets to enjoy the character as well,” he explained.

English actor Antony Lawrence plays Scar, the villain of the piece – or, as this writer likes to refer to the character, ‘Clawdius’. Lawrence identified Scar as marking a turning point in the chronology of Disney villains, who had earlier mostly been cackling witches. “He has his scary moments, but then he’s incredibly funny and incredibly sarcastic and he’s witty and he’s charming,” Lawrence observed. “He’s not just evil, there are all these other layers to him.”

Scar derives pleasure from manipulating others so he can get a rise out of them. “He loves winding Zazu up, he loves winding Mufasa up,” Lawrence said. “If he makes his brother snap, all of a sudden the king’s not acting very king-like, and he made that happen.”

For a show with so many moving parts, there are bound to be the occasional snags, but Lawrence and his castmates roll with the punches. “If something happens, the important thing is to stay in character and use it in a way,” he reasoned. “My mask can sometimes be a bit temperamental and if it moves by itself, I just go with it.”

Zazu, the king’s majordomo, represents the colonial presence in Africa and is a caricature of a stuffy English butler. Australian actor André Jewson portrays the supercilious hornbill. He recalled being “blown away by the inventiveness and beauty of the production” when he first saw The Lion King during a family holiday to Sydney. Dressed in a bowler hat and tails, sporting white and blue facepaint and manipulating a Zazu puppet, Jewson sticks out from the rest of the cast, and that’s by design.

“He’s very erect, he’s like a butler or even a waiter – the arm [held out in front of him] is like a waiter in a posh restaurant with a white napkin over the arm,” Jewson said as he demonstrated the Zazu puppet for the press. Jewson summed up Zazu’s traits as “twitchiness, reminiscent of fight, of flight, bird characteristics melded with this posh Englishman.” Jewson said that acting with the puppet felt awkward for the first month of rehearsal, but after that point, it all became muscle memory.

The puppets were designed by Taymor and Michael Curry – Curry recently devised the Sven reindeer costume for Disney Theatrical’s latest Broadway musical, Frozen. A core concept of the presentation of the Lion King musical is the ‘double event’ – the actors operating the puppets are not hidden, so the expressions and movements of the actors, in addition to the way they manipulate the puppets, informs the character.

Tim Lucas Tan and Doc Zorthian

Tim Lucas Tan is the head of the puppet department. He was inspired to get into modelmaking by the Star Wars films, and is a part of the Singapore-based animatronics effects and specialty costume studio Core Crew FX. “A lot of the stuff that was used the make the puppets was cutting-edge technology that’s now the norm,” Tan said. The puppet department is on high alert during the show to ensure everything is shipshape. “This show runs at a particular speed and pace,” Tan noted. “Should anything happen, we need to get it fixed on the side and get it to work.”

Production supervisor Doc Zorthian was the original stage manager for The Lion King on Broadway in 1997 and has been a fixture of the show ever since. “Everything is so unique. Everything is designed so specifically, and yet it’s like a simple stroke,” Zorthian enthused. “You don’t really realise how powerful the details are, and when the details are missing, it loses such an impact.”

Over 20 years on, Zorthian still finds the magic in the routine. “We’ll rehearse it and rehearse it, but that first preview when there’s an audience in the auditorium for the first time, I still get chills,” he said. “There’s an energy in the room and your body just tingles. I’m still trying to figure out what it is, but it’s so electric and so exciting. People really react to it.”

Before The Lion King returns to the big screen in 2019, in the form of a photo-realistic CGI remake directed by Jon Favreau, audiences in Singapore can venture into the Pridelands at the MBS Theatre. The Lion King is now playing until 26 August 2018. Tickets start from $65 (excluding $4 booking fee). Visit https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/lionking0918 for tickets.

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Incredibles 2 movie review

For inSing

INCREDIBLES 2

Director : Brad Bird
Cast : Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush, Phil LaMarr
Genre : Animation/Family/Action
Run Time : 125 mins
Opens : 14 June 2018
Rating : PG

A lot can happen in 14 years. While that’s how long audiences have had to wait for a sequel to Pixar’s The Incredibles, barely a minute has elapsed in-universe.

Incredibles 2 picks up right where the first film left off. Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and their children Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) seem like the ideal crime-fighting family. However, superheroes are still deemed illegal, with the authorities blaming the Incredibles and their ilk for the collateral damage incurred.

Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), heir to a telecommunications fortune and superhero fanboy. Together with his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), Winston runs DeavorTech and has a plan to win over the public and lawmakers, to make superheroes legal again. Bob feels a touch insecure when DeavorTech gravitates towards Helen, making her the face of this campaign while he’s left at home looking after the children.

To complicate things, Jack-Jack begins manifesting an array of powers. In the meantime, Elastigirl faces off against a dastardly villain called ‘the Screenslaver’, who hypnotises his victims via monitors. Together with long-time allies Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird), The Parr family must adjust to the new status quo and save the world while they’re at it.

A follow-up to The Incredibles has been one of the most-requested films from Pixar fans. That movie was a game-changer, a stylish superhero film that also served as meta commentary on the superhero phenomenon. It’s been said that The Incredibles is the best Fantastic Four movie that could ever be made. It also touched on similar themes as the considerably more adult graphic novel Watchmen, primarily the relationship between superheroes and the public they protect, and following superheroes after they retire and attempt to adjust to everyday life.

As such, expectations for Incredibles 2 are sky-high. The film mostly meets those expectations. It’s unavoidable that the 14-year wait has dilated those expectations, but it’s important to consider how much the pop culture landscape has changed, and how big a boom the comic book movie genre has experienced in those intervening years. While Incredibles 2 isn’t as ground-breaking as its predecessor, it’s still enjoyable and, as expected from Pixar, finely made.

Many of the design elements first seen in The Incredibles are vividly expanded upon here. The appealing 50s-tinged retro-futurism is turbo-charged here – writer-director Brad Bird displays a similar mastery of nostalgia as he did with The Iron Giant. The Parrs move into a house that strongly resembles Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and Michael Giacchino’s score homages both John Barry’s James Bond scores and Neal Hefti’s Batman ’66 theme. The influence of the classic Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons is also strongly felt. It’s nostalgia on multiple levels, since audiences are already nostalgic for the first Incredibles film. However, most nostalgia-driven media these days is centred around the 80s or 90s, not the 50s, giving Incredibles 2 a degree of novelty.

The action set pieces are marvels to behold. From the city-spanning spectacle of Elastgirl attempting to halt a runaway train to the physical comedy of Jack-Jack tussling with an unruly raccoon, Incredibles 2 packs in memorable, eye-catching moments. Several new superheroes, including the portal-generating Voyd (Sophia Bush), allow for even more dynamic visual invention. Every comic book movie seems to struggle with outdoing the last in terms of delivering spectacle, so its admirable that the action sequences in Incredibles 2 are as stylish and animated with as much panache as they are.

The characterisation remains consistent, and much of the fun and the heart in this film, as with the previous one, is in how convincing the Parrs are as a family unit. Superpowers may be thrown into the mix, but the interactions between parents and children are eminently relatable. Bob struggles with feeling inadequate as the spotlight is placed squarely on his wife, and the film fleshes this out instead of reducing it to a single joke. We see Bob try to be a good father to his three kids, struggling with understanding new math, helping Violet deal with relationship issues, and wrangling Jack-Jack, who can now disappear between dimensions (among other things).

Helen wants to be there for her family, but enjoys the thrill of solo superhero work, realising how much she’s missed that. Given how filmgoers are opening up to female-led superhero movies, it makes sense to train the spotlight on Elastigirl.

The Screenslaver has a cool gimmick and his character is commentary on our dependence on passive consumption of media. It’s meta, but not quite as meta as this reviewer was hoping. A supervillain with the power to control minds and brainwash heroes to do his bidding is hardly a fresh idea, but Incredibles 2 mostly makes it work.

The show is completely stolen by Jack-Jack. The film relishes in depicting the various mind-boggling abilities he exhibits, and how Bob and the other kids attempt to wrangle him. Lucius’ reaction to Jack-Jack’s powers is priceless, and the scene in which Bob goes to Edna for advice regarding the baby is hilarious. Despite a tendency to take the form of a demon, Jack-Jack is adorably good-natured yet not overly cutesy.

If you loved The Incredibles, there’s a lot in Incredibles 2 to enjoy. It might not reach the same heights as its predecessor, nor is it as poignant and emotional as many Pixar films, but it’s clear that plenty of love and effort went into constructing this stylish, entertaining movie.

Bao, the short film directed by Domee Shi that precedes the feature, is a gorgeously-animated, adorable and heart-rending meditation on empty nest syndrome which also plays on how integral food is to familial relations in Chinese families. Try not to watch it hungry.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom review

For inSing

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

Director : J.A. Bayona
Cast : Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Isabella Sermon, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, B.D. Wong, Geraldine Chaplin, Jeff Goldblum
Genre : Action / Adventure / Sci-fi
Run Time : 128 mins
Opens : 7 June 2018
Rating : PG-13

Just as life finds a way, so has the Jurassic Park franchise. There was a 14-year break between Jurassic Park 3 and Jurassic World, but the response to the latter showed audiences were hungry for more dinosaur mayhem. Jurassic World grossed $1.6 billion worldwide and became the second-highest-grossing film of 2015, making a follow-up inevitable.

Three years have elapsed since the events of the last film. The Jurassic World theme park lies in ruins on Isla Nublar, off the coast of Costa Rica. An impending volcanic eruption threatens the remaining dinosaurs who roam free on the island. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), former Jurassic World operations manager-turned dinosaur activist, has founded the Dinosaur Protection Group to save Isla Nublar’s Saurian inhabitants.

Claire is contacted by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), the executor of Sir Benjamin Lockwood’s (James Cromwell) estate. Lockwood was the partner of the late John Hammond, creator of the original Jurassic Park. Mills needs Claire’s help to facilitate the evacuation of the island. Blue, the last Velociraptor, is still alive. Claire ropes in Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the dinosaur handler who raised Blue, to help locate her. Claire’s employees at the Dinosaur Protection Group, paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and systems analyst Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), join the mission too. Owen and Claire soon find themselves entangled in a nefarious conspiracy that could throw the world as we know it into irreversible chaos.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom comes extremely close to blockbuster perfection. Hiring J.A. Bayona proves to be a canny move on the producers’ part. The filmmaker kickstarted his career with the Spanish horror movie The Orphanage and made the disaster drama The Impossible and the dark fantasy fable When a Monster Calls. This is by far the largest project he’s presided over, and he worked closely with the previous film’s director Colin Trevorrow and producer Steven Spielberg, who directed the first two Jurassic films. The result is distinctly atmospheric, with an emphasis placed on scenes of sustained tension, without sacrificing the grand spectacle audiences come to these movies for.

Trevorrow co-wrote the screenplay with Derek Connolly, and they’ve devised a great reason to return to Isla Nublar. At first, the story seems like a re-tread of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, complete with paramilitary personnel rounding up the surviving animals and Ted Levine as a grizzled big-game hunter. Then, the movie swerves in an interesting direction, one which the trailers have misdirected us away from.

The film is paced marvellously, packing in action – and more importantly, action with some variety to it. It’s a given that most of the characters will spend a lot of time running away from dinosaurs. There’s that, to be sure, but there are also creepy, well-staged moments steeped in shadows and incorporating a sense of claustrophobia that are exceedingly effective.

Several of the dinosaurs possess enough personality to be accepted as characters. Blue’s bond with Owen is further developed, and both she and the T. rex get their share of ‘hero’ moments. Animatronic effects are used more than they were in the preceding film. Neal Scanlan, the creature effects supervisor for the recent Star Wars films from The Force Awakens onwards, oversees the practical dinosaur effects. He and his team have done excellent work, and the computer-generated visual effects are a notch above those seen in the previous film too. There’s even physical comedy courtesy of a rambunctious Stygimoloch.

The film is at its best when it echoes and builds upon the themes inherent in the first film and the source novel by Michael Crichton. The manmade dinosaurs could be viewed as an affront towards nature, with nature now reclaiming itself by way of the volcanic eruption. Hammond and Lockwood opened Pandora’s Box, and there’s no coming back from that. Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm pops up in a cameo reiterating his initial fears of the implications resurrecting dinosaurs would have. These creatures were intended as theme park attractions, which seems innocent enough, but the applications for this technology were never going to stop there. The film tackles this in a slightly deeper, headier way than one might expect from summer popcorn entertainment.

Owen and Claire are good people who have unwittingly been used by bad people for their own ends. Both characters seem less like the broad caricatures they were presented as in the previous film, giving Pratt and Howard more to work with. Owen and Claire grapple with their involvement in Jurassic World, and how much of the chaos that unspools in this film is their fault. They also find themselves in the thick of the action and have so many near-misses that they come across as at least a little superhuman.

Some of the new characters are played a little too broadly, especially Justice Smith’s anxious tech expert. The human villains aren’t dimensional enough and have straightforward, avaricious motivations.

The new addition to the cast that stands out is Isabella Sermon, who plays Lockwood’s precocious granddaughter Maisie. Beyond being the requisite imperilled child each of these movies must have at least one of, she becomes integral to the plot and protecting her gives Owen and Claire a secondary objective.

The new dinosaur being highlighted is the Indoraptor, following in the clawed footsteps of the previous film’s Indominus rex. Just as the Velociraptors have generally been scarier than the T. rex in previous Jurassic films, the vicious Indoraptor is considerably more menacing than the Indominus rex, proving a formidable foe for our heroes, human and dinosaur alike.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is the best film in the series since the first. It packs in all the exhilarating theme park ride-thrills we expect from the series, while attempting to bring the moral and ethical quandaries at the heart of the premise back to the surface. The film is a satisfying experience, while naturally leaving the door open for a sequel. Stick around past the credits for a fun little stinger scene.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong