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"The two ages of Simba, shared by David 'Dakota' Sanchez (young) and Jason Raize were wonderfully sung and acted."
--Kitchener Record review of The Lion King

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New York Times year-end piece on The Lion King

The Record (Kitchener, ON, Canada)
Pride Rocks: Broadway's Production of
'The Lion King' Dazzles in Sight and Sound

by Harry Currie
June 12, 1999

Just sitting in New York's New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street just a few feet from Times Square waiting for the start of The Lion King is an experience.

Not only has this 1903 theatrical palace been totally restored to its original grandeur by Disney, but there is a feeling of expectation in the air which runs higher than anything I've ever experienced. We've all felt the anticipation prior to a wonderful show. But in this case, the place was electric, positively crackling with energy.

The Lion King is coming to Toronto in the spring of 2000, but sitting there you wonder, can a musical be this good? After all, it's just an adaptation of an animated film, which, as good as it was, aimed at a younger demographic and was very successful in so doing -- one of the highest grossing films in history and the highest selling home video to date.

The house lights dim, and Rafiki, the shaman baboon played by Tsidii Le Loka, arrests the audience with an African chant which is answered by an unseen chorus, the sound of which takes your breath away.

Rafiki's summons is to all of the animals in the Pridelands, calling them to Pride Rock to pay homage to the newly-born prince Simba. The animals' entrance is through the aisles of the theatre -- lions, wildebeests, gazelles, leopards, zebras, elephants, birds, and unbelievably, two giraffes who enter from the wings, all against a huge, dazzling sun which has just risen -- and at the same time singing Circle of Life, which is the essential symbolism of The Lion King. There are 25 types of animals, birds, fish and insects represented.

To say the effect is breathtaking is an understatement -- it is overwhelming. The film version is forgotten in an instant, for this musical is live theatre at its finest and owes no more to the film than inspiration.

The concept is brilliant.

Director/designer Julie Taymor realized that the human/animal duality of the characters was so essential that she designed the masks and costumes so as not to hide the actors behind them or in body suits. The audience must make the adjustment, suspend the expectation of total illusion, and accept the reality of the symbiosis of performer and puppet, character and mask. Taymor became the first woman in history to win the Tony Award for best director of a musical.

Several things are quickly apparent. The principal characters are much stronger and better defined than they were in the film, and the chorus, virtually background in the film, is not only a vital presence in the musical, it emerges as a central character.

The strength of the cast is quite amazing. The singing voices are superb, the acting is dynamic, the dancing and choreography athletic and graceful, the comedy hilarious. But add to these attributes the fact that many of the performers are also operating puppets which are their onstage alter egos, and you get some idea of the demands of the roles.

Mufasa, the king, played by Samuel E. Wright, is a commanding presence in every way. Scar, his conniving, jealous brother, is delicious and oily in the hands of Tom Hewitt. Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog who befriend the lost little Simba, played by Danny Rutigliano and Tom Alan Robbins respectively, are marvels of vocal and puppet characterization.

Zazu the hornbill, the king's major domo, was superbly played by Bill Bowers as a flighty fusspot. The two ages of Simba, shared by David "Dakota" Sanchez (young) and Jason Raize were wonderfully sung and acted. And the three jackals, Shenzi, Banzai and Ed, played by Tracy Nicole Chapman, Keith Bennett and Jeff Skowron, were alternately frightening and funny.

Female characters in the musical were given much greater prominence than in the film. Rafiki received a gender change, emerging as the musical's most powerful and spiritual female presence. Nala, Simba's friend and betrothed, played young by Ashley Perry and older by Heather Headley, has an expanded role and a new song, Shadowland, which was exquisitely sung by the exquisite Headley. Simba's mother Sarabi, played by Meena J. Jahi, is a strong, supporting presence.

The score has been expanded considerably. Where there were five songs in the film, the musical has 13, three of which were added by the original composer and lyricist Elton John and Tim Rice: The Morning Report, The Madness of King Scar, and Chow Down.

But it is no lie to say that the character of the musical is far more African than the film, and this is due in no small measure to the contributions of Lebo M. A native South African, he wrote or co-wrote the five additional songs for the show, did the vocal arrangements, is choral director, and has worked onstage in the chorus. In addition, Lebo M. added the Grasslands and Lioness chants, both of which are sung in Zulu. His entr'acte chant One by One, performed by the chorus in the audience, was one of the most triumphant sounds ever heard in a theatre. Incidentally, there are seven native South Africans in the company.

Rafiki's dynamic chants were written by the performer Tsidii Le Loka.

The 22-piece orchestra is a wonder of sounds and technique. Percussion plays a critical part, and the two boxes closest to the stage had an African percussionist in each, adding both to the sonic and visual spectacle.

One comes away with a sense of having witnessed a dazzling kaleidoscope of perfection, both in performance and in spectacle, yet with the profound satisfaction of experiencing something beyond theatre. In every aspect of The Lion King -- music, movement, colour, texture, design and character -- there is a superb and well-deserved celebration of African pride.

Small wonder that The Lion King won 25 major awards in all categories, including six Tony Awards. This is a show you will want to see again and again.

The Lion King at the New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 W. 42nd Street, New York, N.Y., is booking well into 2000. Scattered tickets are available from September, 1999, and some good seats are available from February, 2000. Cancellations and returns, if any, go on sale about half an hour before each performance.

For tickets call Ticketmaster at 1-212-307-4100.

The Lion King at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, is scheduled to open on March 30, 2000. For the date of ticket availability call 1-416-872-1212.

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