The world’s No. 1 musical has arrived in Manila, paws, fur, tail and all. Disney’s “The Lion King” officially raised its curtain at The Theater at Solaire on March 28, and is looking at a full house for every performance until May 6.
A landmark musical event, it is truly high time that the worldwide phenomenon finally comes to Manila’s stage, which for the last decade has seen tremendous patronage for both local and international theater productions alike.
Happily, acclaimed director Julie Taymor who brilliantly re-imagined the now classic Disney movie into a theatric spectacle, has chosen the Philippines as the jump off point of this all new world tour for The Lion King.
Full rehearsals began in January right here in Manila, with a global cast and crew comprised of 18 different nationalities.
“We really planned that this show should not only play here in Manila but also rehearse here. And so for the past three months, almost 140 people have called Manila home as we’ve created our costumes, built our sets and rehearsed here,” Michael Cassel, the musical’s producer shared with members of the local and international media during its press preview on March 27.
“Over 18 nationalities are represented both onstage and behind the scenes. We also welcomed to The Lion King family a lot of talented Filipino costume makers, designers and technicians who have helped bring to life this spectacular production,” he continued.
The principal cast of The Lion King is led by Ntsepa Pitjeng who reprises the role of Rafiki from performances in the US, United Kingdom, Brazil, and Switzerland. Direct from London’s West End production, meanwhile, is Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile in the role of Mufasa, as well as West End music theatre performer Antony Lawrence as Scar.
Also in the cast are Australian actor André Jewson as Zazu, the charismatic New Zealand-born performer Jamie McGregor as Timon, and South African favorite Pierre van Heerden returns as Pumbaa.
From the Philippines, six actors are officially part of The Lion King’s production, namely Julien Joshua Dolor Jr., Gabriel Tiongson and Omar Sharief Uddin, alternating as the Young Simba; Sheena Kirsten Bentoy, Uma Naomi Martin and Felicity Kyle Napuli taking turns as the Young Nala.
Rounding out the principal cast are South African performers Calvyn Grandling playing the much-loved role of Simba; up-and-coming stage star Noxolo Dlamini as Nala; Candida Mosoma who reprises the role of Shenzi; Björn Blignaut as Banzai; and Mark Tatham as Ed.
Wonder of live theater
Associate Director Anthony Lyn meanwhile emphasized that The Lion King will greatly contribute to the local theater industry here as well as the succeeding countries they will visit by initiating the love for this artistic genre through the wonder of live theater—the product of music, acting, stage design and costumes all coming together.
Director Taymor, who also doubles as costume designer and mask co-designer, zoomed in on bringing the animals to life for the stage via a makeover from past productions.
Speaking on Taymor’s behalf, Associate Director Lyn elaborated, “When it comes to representing the animals on stage, Julie decided very quickly that she will not dress the cast by covering up their body with fur so they can pretend to be lions. Instead, she has this concept of a double event, which comes from her training in Asia, specifically in Indonesia where she studied.
“Julie decided that the best plan to represent the animals would be to have them as animals onstage the entire time while the audience sees the human operating the animal at the same time. So in the production, there are times when the actor has a mask on top of his head so that we can see both the human and the animal in the character,” he added.
In doing this, Lyn showed how Taymor did not merely copy the film onto the stage but re-imagined it to bring about the wonder of a theatrical experience.
Family and humanity
Beyond entertainment, Lyn pointed out that The Lion King is essentially a story on family and humanity. In fact, he and the team have seen many parallelisms between the production and their experience setting up a home in Manila since January.
“The humanity of the story deals with the themes that so many of us have dealt with. It deals with the themes of love, love lost, betrayal, death and most especially that of a prodigal son’s story. It is about Simba who leaves home and goes into exile. While in exile, he has to make a decision about himself in order to go back and deal with the past and reclaim his kingdom,” Lyn began.
“From there, you see that it’s a story everyone can connect with. It’s about family, community, good and evil that happens in life and how we learn to deal with those things. And while The Lion King is all about family, very quickly by the time that we’ve been here three months ago, this group of people—the cast and the crew—have very much come together and instantly treated one another like family. That’s by the fact that everybody here in Manila has welcomed us with such open arms,” Lyn furthered with gratitude.
Now on its 20th year as a theatrical production, The Lion King continues its ascent as one of the most popular stage musicals in the world. Since its Broadway premiere on November 13, 1997, more than 90 million audiences have seen 24 global productions and counting.
After the Philippines, the international tour will head to Singapore, Korea and Taiwan with more engagements to be announced soon.
The Lion King is presented by the Michael Cassel Group and Concertus Manila, in association with Disney Theatrical Productions.