The Lion King musical (Singapore, 2018)

THE LION KING

Marina Bay Sands Theatre, Singapore
27 June – 23 September 2018

Photo by Jedd Jong

In 2014, the Lion King stage musical overtook The Phantom of the Opera to become the highest-grossing title in the history of stage and screen. This reviewer has a soft spot for Phantom, but it’s hard to deny that The Lion King’s crown as ruler of Broadway and beyond is well-deserved.

After a record-breaking eight-month-long engagement in 2011, The Lion King returns to Singapore. The show is based on the now-classic 1994 Disney animated film of the same name. It’s a story so familiar that it’s almost redundant to synopsise it, but here’s the short version: Simba, son of King Mufasa, must face the destiny he’s been running from after surviving a tragedy engineered by his power-hungry uncle Scar. Nala, Simba’s childhood friend-turned-love-interest, must convince the rightful king to reclaim the throne and fight for the good of all the animals who inhabit the Pridelands.

While most Disney Theatrical adaptations of animated films are largely literal and generally resemble their source material, director Julie Taymor leapt far out of the box for The Lion King. The film’s anthropomorphised animals are realised through puppets of various designs and functions.

Photo by Joan Marcus ©Disney

Pulling from various cultural influences and melding them into a hypnotic whole, Taymor adopted an approach that incorporates Balinese and Javanese dance, Bunraku-like puppetry, shadow puppetry and masks. It’s a visually stimulating experience. As the line in “Circle of Life” goes, “there is far too much to take in here” – and “too much” is just the right amount.

The film’s memorable songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are supplemented with additional songs by the duo. Further shaping the unique soundscape is African choral music by Lebo M., and expansions on the film’s score by Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin. It’s eclectic and just as it is with the visuals, the disparate influences of the show’s score could’ve been an inchoate mishmash, but it is just the opposite. The stage is flanked by two percussionists playing African and Latin drums, adding a textural layer to the music from the orchestra pit.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Right from the get-go, The Lion King is an emotional experience. The show begins with the mandrill Rafiki issuing the cry “Nants ingonyama! bagithi Baba!” – Zulu for “Here comes a lion, father”. The sun rises over the Pridelands as creatures big and small flood onto the stage. The visual dynamism, the inventiveness of the puppet designs and the physicality of the performers are all established in the powerful opening number.

This is a show that asks a lot of its performers. The core concept is that of the ‘double event’, meaning the actors who are manipulating puppets must, in a sense, perform the role twice, as both they and the puppet are visible. The choreography by Garth Fagan strikingly evokes the forms of each animal the performers are representing, and despite not literally resembling the beasts, the overall effect created by the performers and puppets is easy to buy into.

Ntsepa Pitjeng is a veteran of the production, having played Rafiki in the U.S., U.K., Brazil, China and Switzerland. The character is male in the animated film but was reimagined as female based on Taymor’s desire for more female characters in the show, and informed by how many healers and spiritual leaders in traditional African cultures across the continent are women. Pitjeng’s essays Rafiki’s signature blend of mischief and wisdom accumulated over the years with a crowd-pleasing performance that is rousing yet subtle when it needs to be.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Jonathan Andrew Hume, who has been with the U.K. ensemble since 2001 and who first played Simba in Singapore in 2011, returns as the protagonist. Hume delivers a passionate performance, capturing Simba’s joie de vivre and the conflict that is rooted deep within him. It can be read that all the gleeful pouncing about is merely a façade to conceal the hurt that Simba carries with him from his past. Hume’s soaring delivery of the ballad “Endless Night”, which starts out mournful then turns hopeful, is brilliant.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Noxolo Dlamini delivers an elegant turn as Nala, displaying precision in her lithe physicality and creating beautiful lines of movement. The yearning comes through in her part of the duet “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, and Dlamini’s portrayal of someone rediscovering a long-lost friend is gently affecting.

The roles of Young Simba and Young Nala are shared between three actors each, who joined the cast during the show’s previous stop in Manila. At our performance, Young Simba was played by Julien Joshua Dolor, who is energetic, wide-eyed and loveable. The excitement and wonderment, soon to be dashed, is integral to the portrayal of Young Simba. Alas, Uma Naomi Martin, while also adorable, is noticeably stiffer as Young Nala. We don’t take joy in criticising child actors, but Dolor comes off more naturally than Martin does.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile’s Mufasa is one of the highlights of the cast. Khanyile projects the dignity of a king and the warmth of a father, a father who desperately wants to prepare his son for the duties of leading the Pridelands but is unaware of just how little time he has left. Khanyile’s delivery of “He Lives in You” is heartfelt, and his delivery of the message Mufasa’s ghost has for Simba, coupled with the stunning presentation of that scene, is awe-inspiring.

Photo by Joan Marcus © Disney

Scar is one of those villain roles that affords actors the chance to ravenously chomp the scenery, which Antony Lawrence happily partakes in. He stalks across the stage, sneers and turns the campiness up to eleven. Scar’s articulated mask enhances Lawrence’s snarling expressions. Lawrence’s Scar could stand to be a touch more menacing, but it’s an enjoyable performance all the same.

Photo by Jedd Jong

André Jewson handily (wingily?) steals the show as Zazu, the fussbudget majordomo and loyal aide to Mufasa. He accurately captures the worrywart hornbill’s vocal inflections and does remarkable physical work, influenced by mime and clown traditions. As a comedic character, Zazu chips away at the fourth wall with his beak, making Singapore-specific references and winks at pop culture. Such jokes were greeted with uproarious laughter, but they can pull one out of it a little, and momentarily make this transcendent work of art feel like a show at a theme park.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Timon and Pumbaa are to Simba what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to Hamlet. Kids are bound to love the double act. Jamie McGregor’s neurotic Timon is the ideal counterpoint to Pierre van Heerden’s easier-going, notoriously flatulent Pumbaa. The contrast in the physicality, like Laurel and Hardy or C-3PO and R2-D2 before them, is integral to the humour derived from seeing the pair onstage.

Vuyelwa Tshona, Liso Gcwabe and Mark Tatham portray Scar’s henchmen, the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed respectively. While their performances cannot be faulted, the hyena costumes are this reviewer’s least favourite. There’s a distracting gap between the head and the body, they seem kind of floppy and just don’t have the same efficiency in the design as some of the other costumes/puppets in the show. The hyenas’ number “Chow Down”, completed with electric guitar riffs, is the most incongruous in the show.

Photo by Deen van Meer © Disney

The Lion King is a show with so many moving parts, a show that’s so technical, and yet its overflowing with resonant emotion and never feels like an impersonal assemblage of sets, props and costumes. The show packs in jaw-dropping spectacle, but never loses sight of the themes of facing one’s past and the father-son relationship at the heart of the story. 21 years after its Broadway premiere, The Lion King is still a crowning achievement of stagecraft and still has the power to move audiences to tears.

Jedd Jong

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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.

Evita musical review

For inSing

EVITA

MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands Singapore
23 February – 18 March 2018

It now seems commonplace for entertainers to enter politics, but there was a time when this wasn’t so. In 1945, 26-year-old actress Eva Duarte married Colonel Juan Perón. In 1946, Perón was elected President of Argentina, and the actress became the first lady. Eva earned adoration and scorn and has had a lasting impact on popular culture.

Evita is arguably the best-known pop culture depiction of Eva. Practically everyone has heard “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” at some point or another. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice and directed by Hal Prince, the musical began life as a concept album in 1976, then debuted on the West End in 1978 and on Broadway in 1979.

The musical was adapted into a hit film in 1996, starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce. The film was nominated for five Oscars and won Best Original Song for “You Must Love Me”.

It is 1934, and young Eva Duarte (Emma Kingston) convinces travelling tango singer Augustin Magaldi (Anton Luitingh) to take her to Buenos Aires. Excited at what the big city can offer, Eva quickly becomes a well-known radio personality and actress. At a charity concert in 1944, she meets Colonel Juan Perón (Robert Finlayson), and positions herself to fall in love with and marry the Colonel.

Perón is elected President of Argentina in 1946. When Perón is imprisoned by his political opponents, Eva rallies the people of Argentina around him, portraying herself as coming from the working class and thus understanding their needs and concerns. Eva becomes a glamorous style icon and the face of Argentina on the world stage. She is given the title of Spiritual Leader of the nation. However, she begins to weaken, and eventually dies of cancer at 33.

Our way into the story is the narrator Che (Jonathan Roxmouth), a one-man Greek chorus who functions as critic and observer, but mostly critic.

Evita is a controversial work because it depicts Eva as a grasping opportunist who slept her way to the top. The primary source material was apparently the biography The Woman with the Whip by Mary Main, which was unabashedly Anti-Peronist. Evita has a point of view and isn’t preoccupied with appearing even remotely objective. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s clear that its portrayal of events is largely superficial. This is a story that begs for over-the-top theatrics, but also for incisive nuance – the latter being in short supply.

Perhaps this is a limitation of the form of musical theatre, but the nitty-gritty of politics is challenging to present through song and dance. Then again, Hamilton famously acquitted itself well in this regard. Eva is depicted as a power-hungry social climber, and there is an emphasis on her expensive clothing – the number “Rainbow High” is all about Eva insisting she look her most glamorous for her European tour. Eva is depicted as being duplicitous – everything that made her beloved was all an act. “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, her impassioned plea to the adoring public, is a lie – she claims to have never “invited” fortune and fame, when that’s exactly what she’s done.

It feels like Eva was a more fascinating person than the show makes her out to be. There’s no question that she was ambitious and that she had and still has her detractors, but Evita downplays her contribution to feminism in Argentina as a staunch fighter for women’s suffrage. Eva pushed for a change in the law that was enacted in 1947: not only did this give women the right to vote, but also the right to be voted for and elected to office.

How does this fare as spectacle? Blockbuster Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals are typically associated with lavish, over-the-top scenery and effects: think crashing chandeliers and roller derby stunts. This staging of Evita is sparer and non-literal, using the original scenic design by Timothy O’Brien. The main piece of set is a balcony/walkway that moves up and downstage. Elsewhere, doors are represented by a door frame, and if a scene takes place in a bedroom, all we see on the stage is the bed. Archival footage plays on a large projection screen, giving the action a bit of context but not quite helping the audience’s immersion into the story. If one’s primary contact with the musical is through the 1996 movie, with its epic scope, lavish production value and thousands-strong crowds of extras, its best to remind oneself that the stage and screen are very different mediums.

Evita contains some of Lloyd Webber’s strongest melodies and scathing, witty lyrics from Rice. Lloyd Webber’s composing in the rock genre is not everyone’s cup of tea and has often been scoffed at by fans of rock music. The influence of Latin American music is naturally present, and the blending of styles might alienate some. However, as the musical is through-sung like an opera, each song flows into the next and motifs are repeated often. This reviewer’s favourite number is “High Flying Adored”, which sees the often-fiery Che at his most tender. Under the baton of musical director Louis Zurnamer, the orchestra brought the famous score to vivid life.

Lloyd Webber is known for writing scores that are downright punishing for performers, especially women. The vocal range demanded of Kingston is staggering and handles it all with confidence. There are moments when her voice seems to want for power, but this is such an exhausting show that it doesn’t quite seem fair to fault her. Her rendition of the aria “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is the show-stopper it should be. While this reviewer would’ve wanted to see things more from Eva’s perspective, that’s down to the writing and not Kingston’s performance. Especially when playing teenaged Eva, Kingston looks like she’s having fun. This is a daunting role, and she seems fearless in taking it on.

As intended, the show is well and truly stolen by Che. This incarnation of the narrator is patterned after Che Guevara, but the Argentinian-Cuban revolutionary never met Eva or Juan Perón. “Che” is slang for “mate” or “dude” – he’s the everyman who sees through Eva’s act and knows in his heart that while she professes to be a champion for the downtrodden, she’s mainly preoccupied with advancing her own status.

Roxmouth is an outstanding Che – he has a rich, mellifluous voice that is warm but suitably rough. Physicality is a big part of the role, since Che often mocks those in power by mimicking their mannerisms. Roxmouth imbues Che with a louche sexiness that is magnetic and commanding. One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the dynamic between Che and Eva, which culminates in the tense, confrontational “Waltz for Eva and Che”, which is staged like a duel.

Finlayson doesn’t quite have the presence Perón should have, but then again, this is Eva’s show, and she is depicted as being the driving force behind his ascension to power. Finlayson comes off as a little stiff, and his Perón doesn’t have too much personality – again, this seems down to the writing more than his performance, but even so, he’s the weakest link among the three leads.

Luitingh, who is also the resident director of the performance, has fun as Magaldi. The performance is meant to be silly, but perhaps it is a little overly so. Magaldi is the first of many men Eva uses to advance herself, before he’s literally pushed offstage by Che. Isabella Jane, who plays Perón’s mistress whom Eva displaces, sings “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” with mournful beauty.

Evita’s songs have stood the test of time and the Latin-inspired dance sequences catch the eye. However, as a biography of Eva Perón, it does leave a fair bit to be desired. Perhaps it will motivate audiences to do further reading up on Eva. As a depiction of the collision of showbusiness and politics however, Evita is heady and entertaining, if not as substantial and thought-provoking as it would like to be.

Evita is produced by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Base Entertainment Asia and David Atkins Enterprises in association with David Ian and Peter Toerien and by special arrangement with The Really Useful Group. The show runs in Singapore from 23 February to 18 March 2018, and tickets begin at $55 (excluding $4 booking fee).

By Jedd Jong

Photos by Christiaan Kotze and Pat Bromilow-Downing