Review: ‘Lion King’ still magically transports Pittsburgh audience to African savanna
Some Broadway musicals have a way of pulling in their audiences as soon as the pit orchestra plays its first bars of music at the start of Act I.
The national touring production of Disney’s “The Lion King” — in town for a four-week run through Sept. 29 at the Benedum Center as part of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series — is one of those musicals.
Coupled with the stunning visuals of a parade of oversized “hum-animal” puppets marching down the aisles and onto the stage and the commanding rendition of “Circle of Life” by Buyi Zama as Rafiki, “The Lion King” captured opening-night theatergoers from its beginning.
Even before the show got underway, it endeared itself to the audience with a special welcome to those attending their first Broadway performance, which drew applause from the crowd.
Then they were whisked up in the magical story of a rambunctious lion cub, played by Richard A. Phillips Jr. and Walter Russell III in alternating appearances as Young Simba, and Jared Dixon as an older Simba, set in the Pride Lands of the African savanna.
Young Simba and his best friend Young Nala (Brilyn Johnston or Cecina Smith) celebrate Simba’s excitement about his future to succeed his father Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) in an energetic performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” along with Zazu (Greg Jackson), a hornbilled bird and Simba’s uptight caretaker.
The show progresses at a rapid pace, stalled only by a few ensemble dance numbers that are entertaining but don’t help to advance the 2½ hour production, which started 10 minutes late on Thursday night. (The show’s length can be a problem for parents with very young kids who tend to get fidgety when confined for long periods.)
“The Lion King” also includes a few dark scenes that are intense at times, including Mufasa’s death, while although not graphic in detail, can be shocking. After Mufasa was thrown into a wildebeest stampede by his jealous brother Scar (Spencer Plachy), one little girl in the audience was heard to say aloud, “Mommy, is he dead?”
The Cultural Trust advises parents on its website that Disney recommends its productions for ages 6 and up.
The beauty of “The Lion King” is in its songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, its direction by Julie Taymor — who had the vision to cast a talented woman (Buyi Zama) as Rafiki, a traditionally male role — and its positive message of hope.
And it’s always nice when a traveling production gives a nod to the city it’s playing in by adding a local reference. In this case it was one of the silly hyenas, looking down at Young Simba in the forbidden elephant graveyard and suggesting to his fellow carnivores that he might taste good “with some of that ol’ Pittsburgh Heinz Ketchup on it.”
The audience is sent home with “The Lion King’s” most beautiful song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” in their heads after an Act II performance by Simba, Nala, Timon, Pumbaa and the ensemble.
Disney’s “The Lion King” also features Nick Cordileone as Timon, Ben Lipitz as Pumbaa and Nia Holloway as Nala.
Performances run through Sept. 29 at the Benedum with admission prices from $40-$174 and $199 for a VIP package.
Seats are still available, although limited, for several performances during the show’s remaining stay in Pittsburgh. A special sensory-friendly performance scheduled for Sept. 14 is sold out.
Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.