The Lion King
Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas
Sometimes a showbiz match is made in theatrical heaven and certainly that is the case for whomever at Disney suggested The Lion King become a permanent attraction in Las Vegas — and then decided to set it down for a long stay at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
Although Mandalay itself may be in Burma, the original Raffles Restaurant is in Singapore, and the stylish hotel’s Red Square has some of the best Russian food anywhere this side of Moscow (not to mention pouring nearly 200 kinds of vodka), there is a decidedly African feeling to this gloriously tropically-themed hotspot, dripping with carved raw woods and exotic bird motifs, and truly one of the most beautifully appointed places to stay or visit on the Vegas Strip.
The theatre where Disney’s opulent new royal tenant has enthroned itself has previously been home to lengthy runs of both the musicals Chicago and Mamma Mia!, but it has immediately lent itself without much redecorating to The Lion King. Even the lobby’s display of international dance masks I have loved since the place’s Chicago days, now seems perfectly placed, as though they were meant to accompany Lion King all along.
Like this hotel, finished inside and out by an abundance of gold-leafing, scenic designer Richard Hudson and 1998 Tony-winning director Julie Taymor’s The Lion King is rich with sultry designs and hot desert-y beach colors, reflected everywhere one looks or walks long before entering the auditorium itself.
Of course, there is no grander or more imaginative spectacle than Lion King onstage, especially considering Taymor’s amazingly elaborate Tony-winning costuming, as well as the magnificent mask and puppetry designs she developed with Michael Curry (the guy also responsible for the gigantic whimsical creatures crawling around down the street at Cirque du Soleil’s KA), and Donald Holder’s also Tony-honored starkly velvety lighting. There is a magical grace to the huge spectacle here, as there continues to be on Broadway, where it has played continuously since 1997, or during the production’s nearly 1,000-performance run here at the Pantages Theatre.
The Lion King is a perfectly unique blend of fine art and ultimate theatricality, sweeping anyone in the audience, no matter how jaded, into a world unlike anything they have ever experienced before. As “children” of all ages sit gape-jawed in the audience, there’s simply such a continuous display of ingenuity and dramatic grandeur that even the world-weariest of viewers will not fail to be impressed by them.
As most everyone probably knows by now, the miracles begin when the cast accompanies two full-sized elephants come lumbering up the aisles to the stage through the audience, sending young children into the protective arms of their elders and leaving the adults equally breathless without such nurturing elder supervision to shelter them. Soon, the baboon shaman Rafiki, impressively played at the Mandalay Bay by Buyi Zama, costumed in a vibrant fur with what looks like a tambourine for a tail, her feet dominated by gigantic toenails and her face painted in a dazzling rainbow of shades, leads the enormous troupe in the familiar opening production number, “Circle of Life,” and succeeds easily in making it all her own.
Actors portraying antelopes sprint by like cyclists across the massive Mandalay Theatre playing space and austere, delicate giraffes move silently on long and elegant stilts, while bright splashes of cloth at the ends of sticks become birds streaking across a jungle sky, and company members in cane skirts and grass headdresses actually become the stage’s jungle floor.
Of course, even considering the innovation of all this show’s many celebrated wonders, it would be nowhere without the basics: Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi’s finely-tuned and often decidedly tongue-in-cheek book adapted from the screenplay (which the uber-talented Mecchi also co-wrote) and featuring the instantly recognizable score by Tim Rice and Sir Elton John. Garth Fagan’s angular, athletic choreography is well represented and recreated by this energetic and committed Las Vegas ensemble, and the leading performances—Anton F. White as Mustafa, Thom Sesma as Scar, Clifton Oliver as Simba, and Kissy Simmons as Nala—are all world-class.
For the best of show’s delightful periodic doses of comic relief and often topical double entendre-spouting dialogue, LA transplant Patrick Kerr is also a standout as the high-strung, finely-feathered beaked valet Zazu, Damian Baldet and Adam Kozlowski are hilarious as those sweetly goofy buffoons Timon and Pumbaa, and Robbie Swift is a major addition to the fun as Ed, the hunger predator with a mind of his own.
The Lion King has found a grand new home in Las Vegas, where I suspect it will reign supreme for many, many years to come. All hail the new King!
The Lion King plays indefinitely at Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas; for tickets, call 877.632.7400, or visit www.mandalaybay.com/entertainment/LionKing.aspx