With performances of blockbuster musicals often held in different parts of the world on each given night, it's hard to know which one is “the real deal”.
It is a query often thrown at Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, one of the stars of The Lion King musical, playing at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena from Wednesday until December 10.
Speaking to The National, the South African actor is part of the international production, which includes seasons running in London’s West End and New York's Broadway.
Khanyile, who was formerly part of the London cast, says the Abu Dhabi show will not miss a beat.
"You will not see the difference when it comes to the quality," he says.
"While there are shows in the US and UK, we have managed to keep all the productions crystal clear when it comes to telling this same incredible story in a magnificent fashion."
A timeless story
Adapted from the 1994 animated Disney musical, The Lion King is set within an African kingdom of lions and follows the fraught journey of young cub Simba as he prepares to succeed his father Mufasa.
In addition to the Academy Award-winning musical score by Hans Zimmer and hit songs Circle of Life and Can You Feel the Love Tonight by Elton John and Tim Rice, the epic action sequences and lavish savannah settings of The Lion King represented a new high for animation.
The technical virtuosity was replicated in the 2019 live-action film through the use of state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery.
The musical brings its own creative and technical wizardry to the table with epic stage backdrops, colourful costumes and more than 200 puppets that, according to production notes, took nearly 37,000 hours to build.
“We ship most of our sets across continents. It normally takes nearly 30 containers to carry everything and the crew do an amazing job of piecing it all together," he says.
"As for myself and the cast, we normally come about a week in advance to rest, acclimatise and prepare."
Khanyile, who plays the regal and tragic Mufasa, is more prepared than most.
He has been part of the cast since 2014, after a successful audition in South Africa landed him a role in the London run as Mufasa’s understudy.
In addition to performing the role sporadically on the West End, Khanyile took over the part when transferring to the international production in 2018.
“You can say I have been preparing for this role for nearly five years and it is an absolute joy to play because, like all great characters, it also resonates with what is happening today,” he says.
“He is spiritual, stoic and strong in his beliefs. He tells Simba and, really us in the audience, that at the end of the day we need to remember to be true to who we are."
From South Africa to the world
That sense of intimacy is underscored, with The Lion King cast predominantly hailing from South Africa.
The score also features the work of Lebo M, the South African composer behind the euphoric Zulu chant that opens the movie and stage show.
“There will be authentic voices from South Africa in this production,” Khanyile says.
“What also makes touring the show more special is the cast travel and spend time together and it feels like a family. This is very different from residency shows in London or New York where basically you live in your own place and you make your own way to the show each day.
“The atmosphere there is more professional and collegial than family.”
The success of the films and global production also showcases the depth of stage and musical talents in South Africa — a territory often overlooked by producers.
“A lot of us wouldn't have access to the world without The Lion King Musical. There are so many incredible shows in the world but reaching for them, as actors in South Africa and from the continent, was difficult because we were unable to travel and audition for them," Khanyile says.
"But now we got a chance to take part in international music theatre and show what we can do."
And what is on stage in Abu Dhabi is only a fraction of what African stage talent has to offer, he says.
He is adamant more blockbusters such as The Lion King can emerge from South Africa.
"We just need the development of the sector and the investors who want to be part of that," he says.
"Because we do have our own story and talents to share with the world. We just need that exposure and we are ready to go."
The Lion King Musical at Etihad Arena, Abu Dhabi runs from November 16 to December 10. Tickets from Dh200; evening shows begin at 7pm and matinees at 1pm. More information is available at etihadarena.ae
Scroll through the gallery below for pictures of the line-up for Abu Dhabi Classics 2022