Five hundred puppets used to portray African wildlife in The Lion King musical

The show will run from November 18 to December 10 at Etihad Arena on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island

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Nearly 500 puppets will be used onstage in Abu Dhabi to recreate the wildlife of the African savannah for the Broadway blockbuster The Lion King.

The musical, based on Disney’s 1994 animated feature film, is making its Middle East debut in Abu Dhabi, with the preview held on Thursday.

The show will run from November 18 until December 10 at Etihad Arena.

Director Julie Taymor said she had to rely on her many years of expertise in puppetry to adapt the 70-minute screenplay to a theatrical show.

“How do I put that stampede on stage? How do I actually visualise what is wildebeests, elephants, lions and all kinds of animals? I think there may be 400 or 500 different puppets or animals represented on the stage,” she said.

“I could do the smallest little shadow puppet of a mouse and also create the stampede.”

As spellbinding as the story of the lion cub Simba and his life journey is, the intricate techniques of puppetry used to create a jaw-dropping experience for the audience, are equally fascinating.

A “gazelle wheel” with six puppets incorporated into a wheel mechanism operated by a performer is used to give the audience an impression of a herd of gazelles leaping across the stage.

Sunrise is represented by a giant red circle made of bamboo and silk.

“And as the circle of life begins, you do watch the sunrise,” said Ms Taymor.

“And as it rises, the wind in the theatre makes it shimmer. So, it looks like the sun rising in a desert.”

The audience is also in for a treat when Scar, the show's scheming villain, appears in his leather and beads costume, complete with a scary, extendable mask.

Speaking about the universal appeal of The Lion King, the director said: “It is a classic hero's tale, the journey. It is the story of the coming of age of a young man [Simba, the cub].”

“Before he is allowed to become that king, he needs to go through a dark place. There is not one culture in the world that does not understand that story. And this is our common thread as human beings.”

Fastest-selling musical in Abu Dhabi

Since its premiere in 1997, The Lion King has played in more than 100 cities in 21 countries. It has been seen by more than 110 million people across the world.

Ms Taymor said Abu Dhabi was chosen for the Middle East debut because it is a multicultural and diverse city.

Nouf Al Boushelaibi, marketing and communications director at the Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi, said The Lion King is the fastest-selling musical in Abu Dhabi, with more than 60,000 people expected to attend the show in the coming weeks.

Originally, the run was scheduled to be 24 shows, including two performances on Saturdays and Sundays.

However, owing to demand, five more shows have been added — on November 22, 23 and 30, and December 6 and 7.

Ticket prices start from Dh200 ($54).

Updated: November 18, 2022, 2:06 PM