The circle of Disney’s “The Lion King’s” 10-year life on the road has never brought it through Wichita — until now.
But as proven by Friday night’s packed show at Century II’s Concert Hall — upgraded over the past year in part to accommodate the massive production — it was well worth the wait.
The show, a dizzying progression of life-sized puppets, vibrant costumes, and African-influenced singing and dancing that still manages to incorporate every song and nearly every line of dialogue from the 1994 movie that inspired it, is worth the price of admission — and the price is steep by Wichita standards. The cheap seats are $35-$50 apiece. The best ones go for $135.
Though Friday’s performance — the fourth in a 32-show run — had a few minor technical glitches, the audience was captivated by the sleek artistry that produces a new, gasp-worthy surprise every few minutes, from a massive elephant inhabited by four actors ambling down the aisle to a pack of 30 singing hyenas storming the stage from behind.
The stage version of “The Lion King,” which debuted on Broadway in 1997 and is now the highest grossing Broadway musical ever, follows the animated movie surprisingly faithfully.
But the stage interpretation, which benefits from director Julie Taymor’s surreal costumes and puppets, plus a giant injection of African language and traditional singing and dancing, creates magic that the movie can’t touch.
The show feels a little claustrophobic in Century II, which had to commit to expanding its stage and installing removable seats before the production could consider coming to Wichita. The seat work was finished in the fall of 2010, allowing for two narrow aisles on either side of the theater for the show’s famous animal parade opener. But the Concert Hall is still on the smaller side of theaters that can accommodate the show, and even the stage feels cramped, especially during the jaw-dropping “Circle of Life,” which opens the show with a jungle full of fantastical actor-animals crowding the stage.
“The Lion King” shines during its giant production numbers, including “Circle of Life” and a Technicolor rendition of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” which features the show’s two young actors riding joyfully atop giant, spinning jungle birds while dodging two-story, cone-shaped giraffes and dancing African monsters.
During Friday night’s show, the top-notch orchestra — flute heavy and brass free — somewhat overpowered the actors’ voices, especially during the first act, and the back rows had to strain to hear some lines.
And they’ll want to hear each of those lines, which are delivered by top-notch actors, many of them seasoned performers who have appeared in several “Lion King” casts. Star Brent Harris perfectly captures Scar’s smug-yet-comic nastiness, and it’s a shame that Dionne Randolph’s Mufasa — and his booming baritone — is only in the first act. As the “shaman” of the Pridelands, baboon Rafiki, played by African native Buyi Zama, provides the heart of the show, plus its comic relief and a large percentage of the emotional big-note songs. Her performance of “He Lives in You,” an original song in the second act, is among the show’s most moving moments. It’s outdone only by an interlude in which Rafiki mourns a death, the pain palpable in Zama’s voice as she sings her sobs in African dialect.
Audiences also will be charmed by Ben Lipitz’s sweet yet stinky warthog Pumbaa and by Mark David Kaplan’s chatty bird Zazu, who gets all of the show’s best comic one-liners.
And it’s hard not to be impressed by the young actors who carry the first act on their 9- to 11-year-old shoulders. Four of them take turns playing young Simba and young Nala from show to show. Friday’s young Simba was Adante Power, who sang and danced with finesse.
The grown-up versions of Simba and Nala are just at adept at carrying the second act. Talented Jelani Ramey is energetic, earnest and hunkily heroic as Simba, and his chemistry with Nala, played by vocal powerhouse Syndee Winters, is electric — electric enough that one young audience member on Friday shouted “Ewwww!” when the duo began to answer the musical question “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”
The show’s lighting is a work of art, magically creating sunrises, sunsets, deserts and lush jungle settings. Audience members also should watch for a few breathtaking costumes, including a spinning cone attached to a dancer en pointe, meant to recreate an ant hill in act one, and a set of leaf-covered costumes, worn by actors whose careful movements help them magically create the plant life of a jungle floor.