Review: Disney's The Lion King in Abu Dhabi is a celebration of culture and theatre

There is a reason the show is one of the most successful stage musicals around the globe

The Lion King features stellar performances and remarkable stage design. Photo: Disney
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“These look like shower curtains from Dragon Mart,” a comedic Zazu blurts out, setting off thunderous laughter across the Etihad Arena, where for the first time in the Middle East, The Lion King musical is being staged.

It was one of several amusing attempts to make the show even more engaging for a UAE audience — at one point another character says “shukran”.

But the show did not really need these additions. By itself, with all of its glorious production, The Lion King could not have been more mesmeric.

The journey starts as soon as the audience steps through the entrances of the Etihad Arena at Yas Bay, where He Lives In You, one of the show's easily recognisable tracks, blares through speakers to give excited visitors a taste of the magic they are about to witness on stage.

Gasps quickly fill the theatre hall as the opening sequence begins, with Rafiki, played by South African performer Futhi Mhlongo, singing the famed African chant from the beginning of Circle of Life. Her magnetic performance was a highlight of the night — she has a remarkable voice and shows contagious energy every time she takes to the stage.

South African performer Futhi Mhlongo, who plays Rafiki, stands on top of the Etihad Arena for a one-off performance of the the show’s opening number.

A parade of animals, presented through inventive puppetry, slowly makes its way to the stage, species by species, in a masterful display of theatrical movement. Hundreds of puppets were used in the show to represent the animal kingdom — giraffes were played by actors on stilts and other performers operated wheels of six puppets to impersonate a herd of gazelle leaping across the stage.

The Lion King musical turns 25 years old on Broadway this month. Photo: Disney Theatricals

It is the perfect opening sequence to introduce the audience to the complexity of the production, and it is clear that every onstage moment is a product of hard work — and a whole lot of talent.

Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, the South African actor who plays Mufasa in the Abu Dhabi show, is brilliant. There is a tenderness to his portrayal, especially during He Lives In You, which made it entirelybelievable. Spoiler alert … in the stampede in which his character dies, Khanyile shows another display of out-of-this-world creativity.

The Lion King is not afraid to portray its theatrical techniques, and made them an integral part of the performance. This is exemplified by the Grasslands Chant scene early in the first act, when an ensemble of actors perform a delicate choreography as they wear headdresses made from grass.

This treatment definitely adds a unique flavour to the experience — watching a show that does not spoon-feed the audience with literal visual mechanisms. It is pure creativity and imagination in their highest forms. Tony-winning artist Julie Taymor has truly reinvented The Lion King while redefining what it really means to experience a musical on stage.

Scar during The Lion King Musical workshop at Etihad Arena. Photo: Khushnum Bhandari for The National

Such an exquisite concept is nothing without an equally talented cast. Dashaun Young as Simba and Amanda Kunene as Nala give justice to the beloved Disney couple — especially during the classic number Can You Feel The Love Tonight. Antony Lawrence’s Scar is a hit, particularly in the way he manipulates his costume to accurately portray the villainous lion.

Obviously, the music of Elton John and Tim Rice are stars of the show. But it’s also in the music that the stage adaptation takes The Lion King to the next level.

Aptly, African culture is front and centre in the show, with many additional tunes from South African composer Lebo M, who wrote the Zulu chant in Circle of Life. This celebration of culture is not only present in the music, but also in other vibrant elements of the production — from the costumes and props, to the set design.

After watching the show, it’s easy to understand why such a straightforward plot is the source material for one of the longest-running and highest-grossing Broadway musicals in history. Since it had its premiere in 1997 in New York, the show has been watched by about 110 million people around the world.

I initially thought the fun of watching the stage musical would come from the nostalgia of the original 1994 Disney animation — but it isn’t. The story of the The Lion King — with themes of family, grief and courage — has been told many times but this adaptation may be the only one that captures it perfectly.

The Lion King musical at the Etihad Arena will run until December 7. Tickets start at Dh200.

The Lion King Musical preview at Etihad Arena - in pictures

Updated: November 19, 2022, 11:20 AM
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