Arts and entertainment

The Lion King comes home

8 June 2007 The play brings to the stage the sights and sounds of the African bush: the sunsets, the great herds of animals, the birds, the tall grasses and trees to tell a human story with universal appeal. The wildebeest could be seen in the distance, thousands of them running, getting closer and closer, until, amid rising dust, they overwhelm the scene and eventually trample and kill the king, Mufasa. The king is The Lion King; the scene is the stage of the grand new R110-million Montecasino Teatro, where Africa was brought alive with the sounds, sights and wonderful, extraordinary creations of the show. The stage is filled with tall ambling giraffes, a jiving rhino, mean, laughing hyenas, leaping antelopes, jazzy zebras, flying hornbills and buzzards, a huge elephant, and of course the main characters: Simba the baby lion and future king, his powerful father, Mufasa, his conniving uncle, Scar, his gentle mother, Sarabi, and his playmate and future wife, Nala. The Lion King makes for an evening of pure magic, a truly African experience, celebrating everything that is special about the continent: the sunsets, the bush sounds, the great herds of animals, the birds, the tall grasses and trees. And with a story of Shakespearian drama and pathos, it combines the best of Broadway with the best of Africa. The premiere was celeb-spotting heaven everyone who was anyone in Joburg was there . . . in fur stoles, leather, black ties, sparkles, heels, hairdos, and saris. Even the Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, dressed in elegant headgear and matching traditional suit and heels, was there, as well as Oprah Winfrey. The cast consists of 53 performers - almost all local actors - with a technical crew of 70. Linda Dlamini and Hlengiwe Maseko play the young Simba and young Nala, while Andile Gumbi and Tsholofelo Monedi play the older Simba and Nala. Sello Maake-kaNcube plays Mufasa, Buyisile Zama plays queen Rafiki, Mark Rayment plays Scar, and Lyall Ramsden, Peter Mashigo and Pierre van Heerden play Zazu the hornbill, Timon the meerkat, and Pumbaa the warthog. Candida Mosoma, Simon Gwala and Michael Bagg play the three hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed, respectively. Aside from a few weak voices, their performances attest to the excellence of local talent, supported by brilliant choreography and lighting. Global appeal The Lion King, a musical, has been seen and no doubt enjoyed by 52 million people across the globe - in China, the United States, Britain, Canada, Japan, Australia, Germany, Holland, and South Korea. The 1 900-seat theatre, specially constructed to accommodate the enormity of the show, is now one of 10 lyric theatres in the world. The stage has all the bells and whistles that add to the magic of the production, with holes opening up to reveal ponds or shooting steam or sprouting plants, and a moving stage accommodating breathtaking sets. Theatrical techniques include rods, ropes, shadow and hand puppets, aerial dancers, inflatable set pieces and off-stage performing. Bringing the show to South Africa, now in its 10th year, has been the dream of composer, singer, Grammy and Sama award winner Lebo M, who performed and composed songs in the first production on Broadway in 1997. Lebo M and theatre impresario Pieter Toerien have collaborated in bringing the production to South Africa. Many of the songs were based on Lebo M's album, Rhythm of the Pride Lands, which was inspired by the Disney-animated film. "It became a personal journey for me to be involved in The Lion King, and most of the music I wrote is very much inspired by my life story and my background as a South African artist," said Lebo M. Animal personas The actors, depicting African animals, transcend their human shapes but at the same time are not hidden behind unwieldy masks. The masks sit atop their heads, giving the actors a powerful animal persona. Additional legs and bodies, as with the hyenas and the warthog, are cleverly sculptured to fit beyond the actors' bodies, making the actor either a loping, jawey hyena or a snouty warthog. Director and costume and puppet designer Julie Taymor has done an extraordinary job. "The challenge was to take this epic film, to find its essence, and to make it theatre." This means that she has taken the essence of each character, identified the expression that represents the character's main trait, and made a mask that captures that trait. This is in contrast to the film, where changing facial expressions could be easily captured. So, for example, the essence of Mufasa is symmetry "he is an extremely balanced and straightforward personality". His mane was designed to form a circle around his head, like a sun god, the centre of the universe. In contrast, his brother, Scar, who is "misshapen psychologically", has a mask sculpted with one eyebrow up and one down, which twists his face, aided by spiky, porcupine hair. "In its final form, the Scar mask has a bony, comic, yet terrifying feel to it". Taymor has picked up a string of Tony Awards for her extraordinary work in the stage production of The Lion King. The costumes, costing a cool R15-million, enable the actors to step into their animal characters easily. The almost-full-size giraffes and the one-person but four-legged zebras are very clever. The pack of hyenas evoke feelings of distaste and repulsion, so real are the costumes. The music, supplied by the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra, consists of five original songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, with additional songs by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Hans Zimmer. Several songs that were originally composed in Zulu were translated into English, but Lebo M composed several chants in Zulu which were retained in Zulu because "nothing can replace the poetry and mystery of that language's sound", says Taymor. Says Taymor of the production: "It is rare to have an opportunity to experiment, take risks, and develop a piece of theatrical art that is intended to be commercial as well. The merging of these two worlds is a rare phenomenon." The Lion King is a rare phenomenon indeed; don't miss it. Tickets for show, which runs until the end of September, cost between R150 to R425, and are available through Computicket. Source: City of Johannesburg

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