There are few moments in both cinematic and theatrical history that are as epic as “Circle of Life” from “Disney’s The Lion King.” It’s something about having Rafiki alone onstage belting out the African chant with the sun rising over the pridelands behind her that hooks the audience in. Then, in true Disney fashion, the moment gets topped by gorgeous animal puppets traipsing through the audience and onto the stage as the entire ensemble joins in and the sound and beauty of the classic tune fills the theater. Cincinnati audiences have a chance to experience this live for themselves for the next three weeks as “The Lion King” plays at the Aronoff Center now through Feb. 2.
The stage musical follows the same plot as the 1994 animated film. When an overly curious lion cub, Simba, pushes his boundaries — both literally and figuratively — a little too far, tragedy strikes his family. In its wake, the cub is forced to run away and discover his true identity and responsibilities on his own. Will Simba return home to Pride Rock to defend his family and his honor? Or is it better to stay away from the past and develop a new life in the wild?
While the plot stays true to the film, the musical as a whole includes far more creative as well as cultural elements that make it a true Broadway classic that has stood the test of time. Julie Taymor’s reinvention of the pridelands challenges audience members to suspend their disbelief as the animals are all portrayed via puppets or more imaginative costumes that hint at the animal. This allows for the story to be more relatable and makes all the heartbreak and tragedy, as well as the triumphs all the more powerful.
Elton John and Time Rice’s score enriches the plot by giving more of an insight into the characters’ mindsets throughout the musical, such as Simba’s “Endless Night,” Nala’s “Shadowland” and so many more.
Brandon A. McCall roars as Simba with incredible vulnerability and tenacity. The minute he swings onto the stage during the Act 1 finale, “Hakuna Matata,” the energy of the whole show increases tenfold. Between his command of the stage and chemistry with every actor, especially Kayla Cyphers (Nala), I cannot imagine a more believable king of the jungle. McCall’s performance of “Endless Night” is something I won’t soon forget. The intense raw acting combined with his booming voice made the song the highlight of the night, closely rivaled by “He Lives in You (Reprise),” where McCall shared the stage with understudy superstar, Mukelisiwe Goba as “Rafiki.”
Goba was swung on midway through Act 1 of Thursday night’s performance as the jungle’s most lovable baboon after principal Rafiki, Buyi Zama called out for unknown reasons. Goba saved the day with impeccable comedic timing and a voice that stuns as she gets the arguably best 11 o’clock number in musical theater history.
There are only so many ways to describe the brilliance happening at the Aronoff Center eight times a week without seeing it for yourself, so “be prepared” and take a visit to Pride Rock by seeing Lion King now through Feb. 2.
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