Six years after its Scottish debut, audiences can expect a production every bit as dazzling as the West End version
In the world of musical theatre, few experiences can match the thrill of The Lion King's opening parade. Giant puppets depicting the animals, insects and birds of the savannah weave their way down the aisles towards the stage, while all around look on in wonder.
But whether you're sitting in the front row or back of the upper circle, the quality of the production shines through. After 22 years, and with eleven productions running worldwide, The Lion King teams could be forgiven for going through the motions. Yet, as general manager of Disney Theatrical Group, Richard Oriel explains, nothing could be further from the truth.
'We build all our masks and costumes imagining that people are sitting three feet away from them,' says Oriel. 'You would think that perhaps in a big theatre we could get away with cutting a few corners but no, that's absolutely not the case. The nuance and attention to detail is remarkable, and I think that really heightens the theatrical experience – because it looks as good 100 feet away as it does 6 inches away.'
Inspired by the hugely popular 1994 animated film, the stage show opened in the US in 1997 and has never looked back. Directed by theatrical genius Julie Taymor, the production did the seemingly impossible – recreating the cinematic heat-drenched African plains, vast elephant graveyard, deadly wildebeest stampede and jungle teeming with life on stage. As well as designing and making the myriad of subtle and innovative puppets used in the show, Taymor was also instrumental in assembling a top team of creatives.
'The show's success is really down to an incredible coming together of extraordinarily diverse talent,' says Oriel. 'It was led by Julie and her vision for the show – but by bringing in other huge creative influences, it's just an absolute potpourri which makes the show very rich and textured on every level.'
general manager of Disney Theatrical Group, Richard Oriel / credit: Matt Crockett A vast array of people had a part to play in the show's creation, but as Oriel says, a key few really made their mark. South African composer and producer Lebo M brought the choral music so central to the show's sound, with well-known soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer building the underscore. All of which laced beautifully with the existing award-winning tracks by Elton John and Tim Rice, including the tear-jerking 'Can You Feel The Love Tonight', jaunty 'Hakuna Matata' and big opener, 'The Circle Of Life'.
'Add to that the quite unique choreographic style of Garth Fagan, which is very much rooted in Afro-Caribbean dance,' says Oriel, 'and the lighting design of Donald Holder, which magics up the African Savannah. Who would have thought this group of people would have come together? But it absolutely delivers, musically, choreographically and visually.'
Of course it doesn't matter how great a show looks, if the cast isn't equally strong. So from the first rehearsal onwards, the ensemble and lead cast all work with the puppets and props integral to bringing the animal kingdom to life.
'There's such a variety of puppetry techniques that our cast has to learn,' explains Oriel. 'For example, if you're playing Zazu or Timon you have a bunraku puppet that's attached to the front of you. Our ensemble, who throughout the show play a variety of animals, flora and fauna, have to work very hard to make sure that whatever they're wearing on their head or whether they're crouching as a hyena, they're doing it in the right way.'
Playing a young male and female falling in love, as Simba and Nala do, may not be too much of a stretch for the lead cast members – but finding your inner blade of grass or giraffe can be a tall order for the ensemble.
'The storytelling is so important though,' says Oriel, 'so that's something we really impress on everyone during rehearsals, including the ensemble. Because although they have to play a variety of different characters, animals and plants, they're all very much a part of the show's narrative. So we have a permanent creative team that watches the show regularly, to make sure the performers don't lose touch with the story they're telling.'
'And we also have a core group of native South Africans in the show, which is very important because we want the languages to be genuine. We do cast people from all over the UK as well, but it's diverse and that's part of the joy of the show's longevity – bringing in these extraordinary people with very different skill sets, and creating some wonder and magic night after night.'
The Lion King musical runs at Edinburgh Playhouse from Thu 5 Dec 2019–Sun 9 Feb 2020. Tickets are available from 8am Wed 6 Mar.
Written by: Roger Allers, Elton John (music), Tim Rice (lyrics), Mark Mancina (music & lyrics), Lebo M (music & lyrics), Hans Zimmer (music & lyrics), Julie Taymor (lyrics), Irene Mecchi
Julie Taymor's puppet-powered stage version of Disney's spectacular tale of a dead king and an errant son is a feast of exuberant theatre for the whole family, with show-stopping visual effects, gripping drama and plenty of laughs.