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Theater Review: “The Lion King” at the Kennedy Center

The 17-year-old musical is a delight for all ages.

Nia Holloway as Nala in The Lion King. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

Here’s a stat that may make you feel old: The Disney animated version of The Lion King was released 20 years ago. Thankfully, the Lion King musical, nearly college-age itself at 17 years running, is still able to instill a sense of childlike wonder in even those audience members who’ve aged out of Disney’s target demographic. The musical, directed by Julie Taymor, returns to the Kennedy Center for the first time since 2008, with a talented cast that does the lively production justice. 

None of the story beats will surprise anyone who’s seen the movie—in many places, the gestures and characterization hew exactly to the film, though Elton John and Tim Rice’s movie soundtrack gets beefed up with some additional musical numbers. But what’s so delightful about the stage production is how inventively the creators manage to translate the scope of the film to the constraints of a stage. The opening sequence, set to “The Circle of Life,” is a feast for the eyes, as various members of the animal kingdom are revealed, each brought to life through an ingenious combination of makeup, costume, and puppetry (the puppets and masks are by Michael Curry, hair and makeup by Michael Ward; Taymor is behind the costumes). 

It’s nearly impossible to top that initial dazzling surprise, but the rest of the production offers plenty to enjoy. In the massive cast, Drew Hirshfield as the stuffy royal adviser Zazu is a standout; his handling of the bird puppet is seamless, and he nails the balance of snark, obsequiousness, and raw panic that makes the character so humorous. Also impressive were the youngest members of the cast, Jordan A. Hall and Nya Cymone Carter, who on press night played young Simba and young Nala, respectively; they displayed solid song-and-dance skills and acting chops that held up well alongside their adult costars. Tshidi Manye as the sage baboon Rafiki commits admirably to the role, infusing her many gestures and few lines with sly humor; Patrick R. Brown as Scar, on the other hand, offered a performance that read bored rather than menacing, which saps some of the big moments of their drama. One of the undisputed stars is the scenic design (by Richard Hudson, with lighting by Richard Holder), with various elaborate set pieces that take the audience from expansive savannah to lush jungle to gray, forbidding elephant graveyard. Especially memorable was the staging of the wildebeest stampede that kills King Mufasa, a scene that left a few audience members’ eyes less than dry on press night. 

The North American touring production of The Lion King marks its 5,000th performance on July 13 at the Kennedy Center—a significant milestone—but even more remarkable is its enduring ability to surprise and amaze viewers of all ages. 

The Lion King is at the Kennedy Center through August 17. Running time is around two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($40 to $195) are available online

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