The Lion King roars into Fox Theatre

The Lion King at the Fox Theater promotional poster.

By Aneska Walrath

The opening night performance of “The Lion King” at the Fox Theatre was filled with excitement of experiencing this great show. When the house lights dimmed after the routine announcement of “no cameras or cell phones,” the sold-out audience burst into applause.

Nothing about “The Lion King” is ordinary.  It’s the fourth longest-running show in Broadway history, having opened in late 1997, and the first show to earn more than $1 billion.  It will run here in Atlanta through January 28.

After the movie and the Broadway production, “The Lion King” has become one of the most well known productions in history. It’s not only still running on Broadway; it usually contends with “Wicked” or “The Book of Mormon” as the top grossing show of the week.

The touring production features three Atlanta residents — Courtney Thomas, Nia Holloway, and Jane King, ensemble cast members. Thomas began attending dancing classes at North Atlanta High School at the age of 16, and he studied dance with AREA (Atlanta’s Resource for Entertainment and Arts). King, who grew up in Stone Mountain, danced for the Metropolitan Opera and Lustig Dance Theatre and attended Alvin Ailey. Holloway, who attended Norcross High School, is the youngest woman to play the adult “Nala” in The Lion King.

The opening ten minutes are incomparable to anything in musical theater.  As Rafiki, the baboon, in her great trumpet of a voice, calls the African animals to come forth to Pride Rock, and zebras, lions, birds, hyenas, and a majestic elephant all come grazing down the aisles, and you find yourself giving a double take.   Rafiki (Buyi Zama) begins her call in Zulu, then switches over to English for the “Circle of Life.”  As the New York Times wrote in 1997, “There is simply nothing else like it.”

Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey), the Lion King, instructs his small son Simba (Joziyah Jean-Felix) that he will one day be king of the Pride Lands, but Simba must not stray beyond the boundaries of the Pride Lands.  Mufasa is oblivious to the murderous envy of his own brother, Scar (Mark Campbell), who tells Simba about the fascinating elephant graveyard that he really should visit. Using his deviousness, Scar tries to manipulate young Simba to his death, only to be saved at the last minute by his father. Unfortunately, Scar isn’t easily dissuaded, and eventually lures both lions into another deadly situation. Simba is saved, but Mufasa meets his demise at the hands of his brother. Convinced that his father’s death is his fault, Simba runs away – leaving Scar to take the throne.

The show appeals to all ages  There were children present at the performance, who were very excited, but the vast majority were adults.

Zazu (Greg Jackson), a hornbill, is Mufasa’s advisor and self-styled “major-domo.” There are Sarabi (Tryphena Wade), Young Nala (Danielle W. Jalade), Pumbaa the warthog (Ben Lipitz), the grown Simba and Nala (Gerald Caesar and Nia Holloway), and Timon (Nick Cordileone). It’s a large and vivid cast.

The Broadway score features Elton John and Tim Rice’s music from The Lion King animated film along with three new songs by John and Rice. There is choreography by Garth Fagan, and the name most associated with the creation of the show, Julie Taymor  not only directed, but also designed the costumes, masks, and puppets, and wrote some additional music.  With this one show, her place in theatre history is assured. She’s the first woman to win a Tony Award for Direction of a Musical. Taymor has in recent years supervised new productions of the show around the world and was a key part of making the show what it was.

There’s a reason why The Lion King has won more than seventy major theatrical awards since its creation, spawning twenty-four global productions and has been translated into eight languages. The story is timeless and has a universal appeal. The imaginative design and thorough attention to detail has made it one of the most sought after shows in theatrical history, and one of the most spectacular productions in existence.