Hakuna Matata: Means No Worries at Proctors Stunning Disney’s The Lion King

The Savannah has once again planted itself firmly on the stage and somewhat in the audience at Proctors. Grasses blow lazily in the hot African sun, animals and birds of a multitude of varieties fly, walk and stomp across the stage, down the aisles of the theater, and in the balcony and boxes during this thoroughly captivating and enchanting production of Disney’s The Lion King.

Lion King is simply the most stunning eye candy to ever walk across the Proctors stage. Spearheaded by Julie Taymor, director of this national tour as well as Tony award winner for the original Broadway production, Taymor is the creative genius behind the concept and design of the puppets and costumes that have become so iconic to the show.

The story of survival in the African wilderness of the animals that truly rule the land there became known worldwide as the animated Disney children’s classic is brought to life on stages across the globe. Life-sized elephants, giraffes, leopards, and, of course, lions roam the stage. The costumes and puppets are characterizations of the animals, controlled by actors, many of whom inhabit the puppets; some walk beneath or alongside, and all blend into their respective characters. The animals have all been anthropomorphized, given the ability to think, sing, and reason like you and me. 

The story of The Lion King is good vs. evil and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. It is a story of love, loss, growth, and self-discovery. Interestingly, for what is supposed to be a children’s story, there is a great deal of violence and many scary moments, not unlike The Wizard of Oz; I was honestly surprised that more kids did not react to that aspect of the show. The theater was, wonderfully, near capacity and filled with literally hundreds of totally captivated, wide-eyed youth.  

The marriage of actors to their animal counterparts was total. Often times you almost forget that people inhabit the roles. It becomes easy to suspend rationalization and believe that you are watching these creatures sing, dance, and perform.

What makes this, as any production, work is the enormous amount of talent on the stage.

The show apparently rotates its cast from performance to performance. Still, I would venture a guess that under the incredible watchful eye of Disney and Taymor, the casts are most probably interchangeable with equal amounts of talent. The performance we saw had Gugwana Dlamini in the role of Rafiki whose piercing notes will jar one out of their seats as a call to the animals and the show’s beginning, the stunning Circle of Life.

 The lion king, Mufasa, was performed with great heart by Gerald Ramsey, his evil brother Scar was William John Austin, whose deep mellifluous tones filled the vast theater. Nick LaMedica hysterically played Zazu, the young Simba’s nanny and Mufasa’s council. Tony Freeman and Robbie Swift portrayed the thoroughly delightful Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat, and the warthog. Darian Sanders took on the role of the adult Simba with youthful exuberance and another wonderfully powerful voice. The ensemble singers and dancers matched note for note and step for step, the excellent performances of the entire cast of characters.

The Elton John Tim Rice music and lyrics have joined the lexicon of the American musical songbook with Circle of Life, Hakuna Matata, and Can You Feel The Love Tonight. 

Technically the show is superb. Richard Hudson’s simplistic but beautiful scenic design is the perfect backdrop for the animal puppets: Donald Holder’s gorgeous lighting and Steve Canyon Kennedy’s spot-on sound design complete the perfect illusion. Music Director and Conductor Karl Shymanovitz led his ten-piece orchestra from the pit and with percussionists strategically placed in the theater’s boxes, thus engaging the audience with the unique perspective of sound.

The Lion King is packing the seats at Proctors through its run. It is exciting to see such a wonderful production. Seeing sold-out houses in the grand old dame of area theatres is more exciting. Perhaps most exciting is to see the number of young people filling the seats and the look of joy and excitement on their faces as many experience theater for the first time. What a wonderful way to introduce the world of theater to the next generation. 

Disney’s The Lion King is playing at Proctors in Schenectady through August 13. For ticket information, call the box office at 518-346-6204 or online: www.proctors.org

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