From the very moment the curtain rolled up, Rafiki’s booming call to the waking morning sun sent chills down my spine. ‘Circle of Life’ is one of the most iconic pieces of music in Disney’s songbook, but it was when the giraffe puppet-masters trotted onstage on all fours – on stilts – that the place erupted in applause. It’s possible the excitement of seeing Julie Taymor’s adaptation had silenced the sceptic in me at first. It’s also possible that puppetry, costuming and make-up have never been attempted onstage at such an ambitious and complex level before.
The Lion King has seen plenty of success since it debuted in America in 1997, and witnessing the spectacle at Sands Theatre, it seemed the show could’ve felt more grandiose had there been more room for it to breathe. Having an elephant onstage is one thing, but sharing it with a safari is a tough squeeze.
But it didn’t stop the show from wowing the audience with an array of dance styles and musical changes that meant it veered away stylistically from the cartoon at times. Javanese dance moves, combined with authentic African lyrics, then moved on to a rock song sung by hyenas. It’s worth noting the show is also loaded with impressive special effects, such as the tiered stampede – and Scar’s lion mask with its animalistic leer towards young Simba, as the costume’s robotics moved the face ever closer.
Singaporeans got a shiok surprise when some characters slipped in some local patois. Timon’s attempt at Singlish was fitting for the role, considering anyone attempting to speak it for the first time will stick out like a sore thumb. Laughs and applause weren’t hard to find, but at certain points the story’s onstage presentation felt clumsily inappropriate: the crying lionesses, for example, marked one such point where my sympathy began to wear pretty thin.
Puppets, set design and lighting aside, The Lion King wouldn’t be a musical without the songs. Belting favourites like ‘Be Prepared’, or Nala’s emotional addition to the original soundtrack ‘Shadowland’, were given musical muscle by instrumentalists who didn’t have the luxury of a backing tape. There were 19 flutes used in the production, for example – I didn’t know there were that many flutes in Singapore.
Among the talented cast – on a global level, the production’s most internationally diverse so far – it was Leon Matawaran as the young Simba who surprised us all. Being the character who stayed onstage the longest, he kept the show flowing without a sense of waning energy or cringeworthy line delivery. Great child actors are a rare find, and the bond shared between Mufasa drew tissues from purses and pockets.
This blockbuster will be running in our Lion City for as long as we want it to, but don’t make that your excuse for delaying going to watch it. It took me 14 years to see this show, and I don’t regret waiting.
The Lion King is showing at Sands Theatre until 30 Oct.