Abu Dubai: The Lion King: a celebration of talents and emotions
Shukran, Pride Rock
The age-old debate goes like this: a book is better than a movie, almost always. It was only when we sat down to watch The Lion King: The Musical at Etihad Arena, Abu Dhabi, last weekend, did we begin to think of another kind of debate i.e. can a live show be better than a movie? Oh, well, yes was the answer; loud and clear. Yes, die-hard fans of the 1994 movie may raise a brow to that and to be fair, the movie was and is magical even till date, but let’s just say that this musical comes a tad close! And hence it comes as no surprise that the audience for the show were individuals, who’d previously seen the show in other destinations like London, New York, etc. but were back for the second, third time to savour the experience yet again. Incidentally, 2022 also marks 25 years of the show, which is also often referred to as ‘a celebration of life’.
All through the duration of the show (two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission), we were in awe of how each scene and emotion came alive on the stage — be it via more than 200 puppets (rod, shadow, and full-sized puppets) that created animal-like movements or the wonderful music that set the tone. One could almost cry with the kingdom when Mufasa died. Also, it’s interesting to note that it took a combined 37,000 hours to build the puppets, and the overall number of people working on the show was 120 plus. The broadway score features Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs from The Lion King animated film; additional musical material were by South African Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer; and more. Whilst each of the actors on stage was phenomenal, a few would leave you speechless. The actors playing Little Simba and Nala, with their energy and ace acting at that age, especially keeping in mind that the show’s been running eight times a week. Antony Lawrence, who plays Scar, is sinister, magnificent and larger than life! As for Mufasa, played by Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, his presence on the stage is enough to make one believe in all great human virtues.
There’s not a single scene that is less powerful or less aesthetic than the other, but a few deserve a special mention. Each time the Pride Rock appears on the stage, the swiftness of the battery-powered set draws an applause. The emotional and gorgeous scene of Simba looking to find ‘himself’ (literally, Mufasa) in his father’s reflection, created with precise movements and tiny pieces of lighting, is enough for one to return to the show. The apt, aesthetic backdrops throughout the show add enough value to the production and speak largely of the talent behind. Don’t be surprised when hyenas, wildebeests, elephants, cheetahs, zebras and antelopes appear in front of you, and you begin tapping feet to the rhythm. No wonder, the show’s been a recipient of more than 70 major international theatre awards. A must-mention has to be of the ‘local’ touch to the show, without giving out much, let’s just say the inhabitants of Pride Rock know the land i.e. UAE — Al Ain Zoo and Dragon Mart included. And yes, they may speak Swahili (Hakuna Matata), but they know how to say Shukran too! Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions, under the direction of Thomas Schumacher, this is the show’s debut not only in Abu Dhabi but in all of the Middle East, and it’s running until December 10.
This piece was first published in Khaleej Times