Unmatched spectacle of ‘The Lion King’ returns to Benedum stage
“Disney’s The Lion King” has proven itself to be the most moving Broadway musical — both literally and figuratively — that many theatergoers have ever experienced.
From the emotions of a touching story about “The Circle of Life” expressed in music by Tony Award-winning artists Elton John and Tim Rice, to elaborate “hum-animals” — a combination of traditional puppetry and human actors — that fill the stage and all parts of the theaters in which it plays, the production is an unmatched spectacle.
Pittsburgh audiences will have the opportunity to experience “The Lion King” for the first time or recapture the theatrical wizardry they enjoyed in the show’s past visits in 2004, 2008 and 2013 when the North American tour comes to the Benedum Center Sept. 4-29.
The run is a special presentation by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust as part of its PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series.
With Disney’s live-action remake of its classic animated film voiced by Donald Glover and Beyoncé released in July, director Julie Taymor knew the challenge of how to depict the big-screen action of the film “that is more logically cinema because of its scale and all those animals” on the stage.
Her adaptation of “The Lion King” debuted in 1997.
“We had to do something in theater that film can’t do, and that’s about breaking that (fourth) wall” separating performers from the audience, says Taymor, the first woman to win a Tony Award for Direction of a Musical. “We had the freedom to come up with the concepts of humans portraying animals.”
As a result, “the enjoyment of this production will be how it’s being told, as well as the story itself,” she says.
Starring in the role of Rafiki, the “spiritual guide” for the audience, is South African actress Buyi Zama, a “Lion King” veteran who has played her character in productions in London and on Broadway, as well as in South Africa, Australia and China and on previous tours.
New sense of family
Although she has been perfecting her role for more than a decade, Zama is finding “a whole new sense of family” since her baby girl, now 15 months old, was born.
In a phone interview from the company’s tour stop in Cleveland, Ohio, before heading to Pittsburgh, she said that with the help of her husband, she is able to have her baby with them as they visit different cities with the tour.
“I traveled with the show for the longest time, and even though I felt like I was part of the African Pridelands, I wanted to start my own pride,” Zama said.
Her new role as a parent has helped her connect even more with the musical and the relationship between the lion cub Simba and his mother and father, Sarabi and Mufasa.
“On stage, I listen to them talking more now; I can really hear what they’re saying,” she said.
One of the actress’s first appearances on stage was at age 16 as part of a group that performed as backup singers with Whitney Houston in South Africa.
“She had two songs she sang with local kids. I remember her singing ‘Touch the World’ and I thought, ‘I might want to do this.’ It was one of the first times a big star came there after Apartheid. No one came before that,” she said.
Zama admitted that as much as she loves performing, she looks forward to being a stay-at-home mom.
“My husband and I have a plan to move back to Australia, where he’s from, when our baby is ready to go to school,” she said. “I’ve been traveling for 18 years. Being in one place sounds like a dream.”
Message of hope
Her wish is that audiences share the musical’s message of hope, even when it seems like Scar, the main antagonist in the story, is winning.
“It tells us that good overcomes evil,” she said. “Whatever you’re going through, even in your personal life, you’ll be okay. Keep hope alive and we’ll get to where we want to be – one day.”
“Disney’s The Lion King” also features Spencer Plachy as Scar, Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa, Nick Cordileone as Timon, Greg Jackson as Zazu, Ben Lipitz as Pumbaa, Jared Dixon as Simba and Nia Holloway as Nala.
The musical’s Pittsburgh run includes a sensory-friendly performance at 2 p.m. Sept. 14 in the Benedum Center. Details are at trustarts.org/sensoryfriendly.
Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.