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The Lion King through the eyes of a child

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The Lion King

By Luna Griño-Inocian

Theater Review
The Lion King
Ongoing until May 20
The Theatre at Solaire, 1 Aseana Ave., Entertainment City, Parañaque City

I ADMIT, I am jaded. Don’t get me wrong. I love theater with a passion acquired through working in it, living with and loving the people in it, and being a part of it. I know the good and the bad, its triumphs and trials, its tricks and gimmicks, its ways and means, its stars’ flaws and foibles. So, yes — I can confidently say, I know theater, warts and all.

I “know” The Lion King, too. I can say I know it because, for one, I had seen the Disney animated film ad nauseam thanks to three grandchildren ages seven to 11, all of whom at one stage or other in their development wanted to watch nothing else but… sometimes twice a day!

When it was announced The Lion King would be made into a full-fledged musical, I was skeptical. How does one top an animated film? When they announced that they had Julie Taymor on board to “reimagine” it for the stage, I saw it happening. If anyone could do it, she could.

Thanks to Jaime del Mundo who introduced me to the 1994 film adaptation of Stravinsky’s opera Oedipus Rex and the 1999 production of Titus based on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, I was a big fan of Taymor. Both these works were masterfully directed and had an amazing mix of stellar performances and stunning design using puppets, masks, costumes, makeup, and theatrical devices from various cultures to achieve mind-blowing effects.

The first stills of the Broadway production were released and I knew Taymor had done it. The initial reviews and audience reaction bore me out. Twenty years and 24 global productions in 19 countries, bear me out.

Unfortunately, I had never seen the musical in full. Not until its Gala Night at the Theater at Solaire on March 28 that is.

I did, however, devour everything I could read and watch about it — how the puppets were made; what training its actors had to go through to adjust to what is called “the dual event” — that performance style that combines human, mask, and puppet into one cohesive character; how the show was conceptualized and how ideas took shape and form, became tangible; the cultural influences that were drawn upon for the choreography and designs; the music that evolved from Elton John’s pop to Lebo M’s more tribal sound; the actors and singers who were cast from 19 different countries including ours. So, yes — I think I could reasonably say, I knew The Lion King.

So — when it was announced that The Lion King was coming here, I just had to see it!

Several members of the press were given a rare glimpse during a media call on March 27 and I was privileged to be part of that group. We were treated to four charming excerpts — teasers that gave us just enough to intrigue us but left us wanting more. We were also charmed by The Lion King’s Associate Director Anthony Lyn who was our host for the afternoon and “connected the dots” for the few (if any) who were not familiar with the musical.

The real treat was the round-robin interview afterwards when we got a chance to meet selected cast members, from the leads to members of the ensemble, and the creative team including the composer Lebo M. We saw them up close and personal and got to ask our questions — many trite, sometimes blunt and probing, often light and teasing, sometimes shamelessly “fan-girling,” but always geared towards learning more about the production aspects, the creative process, actors’ experiences and impressions, and the nitty gritty involved in putting up a theatrical event of this magnitude — the world’s first international tour of The Lion King, in fact. And the tour was starting in Manila.

I left those round robin interviews knowing The Lion King even better… and more apprehensive about being let-down because of knowing too much and expecting a lot more because of the cumulative hype over all the years.

So, I brought a secret weapon to the Gala Night — my 11-year-old grandson, Matthias, who still had that sense of wonder that I hoped would be catching. After all, there is a saying that goes, “To see the magic of life look through the wondrous eyes of a child.” (Debasish Mridha)

And Matthias did see the magic! From the get go, when the lights went down and the familiar opening chant began — Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba — Matthias leaned forward, seemingly ready to pounce. And pounce he almost did when the spectacular animal parade began. “Animal” after “animal” entered the theater from various points — lithe and lean like the cheetahs they were supposed to be, “flying through the air” realistically from cleverly designed headdresses, collectively leaping across the stage on bicycle-like contraptions or executing grand jetés across the stage gracefully like real gazelles, and lumbering through the aisles as real elephants would do if they were actually allowed in the theater. Speechless for a great part of the parade, he did manage to whisper, “Where are the hyenas, Lola? I can’t wait to see the hyenas.”

He was hooked — his attention held like a high-powered magnet drawn to high grade steel! His eyes were wide as saucers the whole way through except when he covered them momentarily because he knew something he didn’t like was going to happen. I could sense his excitement when the awaited hyenas made their appearance as well as his glee when they exchanged barbs and sang “Chow Down.” His comments, few and far between, were mainly, “Oh no! This is the part were Mufasa gets killed! I don’t like this part!” and then, afterwards, exclaiming “how cool” the wildebeest stampede was. It WAS “cool.” Cleverly staged to look like a constant stream of hulking wildebeests stampeding towards the audience ready to trample everything in their path.

He listened! Matthias caught all the Disney and Pinoy references, laughed at Zazu’s every clever retort, thoroughly enjoyed each Timon and Pumbaa comic exchange, and followed every word Scar uttered or sang closely (He would later confess Scar was his favorite and, yes, he tends to like the villains). His spontaneous applause came — sometimes during some unexpected places — though his cheering for Little Simba was expected because he, of course, knew Gabo (Gabriel P. Tiongson, one of several Filipino children playing the roles of Young Simba and Young Nala). But, then again, Young Simba and Young Nala riding in on gigantic whimsical birds singing their hearts out in “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” had everyone applauding wildly — and most of them didn’t know Gabo.

Act Two began with an explosion of color as the ensemble sang the exuberant “One by One” then continued to serve up treat after treat — sometimes funny, sometimes threatening or suspenseful, heartwarming and emotional, exciting and joyful — and Matthias ate it all up. His jaw literally dropped in awe during a particular scene (SPOILER ALERT!) when the puppetry, special lighting effects, music, and dialogue recreated a particular scene from the film… and I could hear the audience give a collective gasp at that bit of magic.

Afterwards, Matthias exited the theater with a huge grin on his face and declared the musical “way better than the movie.” We drove straight to the beach after the show for our annual family Holy Week “retreat” and, during the whole time we were there, he would burst out into “Hakuna Matata” intermittently — sometimes annoyingly so!

That evening, I watched Matthias watching The Lion King, yes, but after a while, I found myself watching more of The Lion King than him.

My jaded eyes paid attention to every puppet and mask and costume and set piece. My jaded ears listened to every note sung and every word spoken, and watched every dance and each actor’s movement. And, sure, I could have found “fault” with many things about the production because there were some. I could say some of the songs could have been pulled off much better by any number of local talents because I did think that fleetingly. But, in the end, I did not care. I even stopped caring what Matthias thought of the production and simply enjoyed the experience just as he was.

Like my grandson, I sat back and reveled in it… riveted by the spectacle of it… inaudibly oohing and aahing during the animal parade and as each new character appeared… swaying and bopping with the music… holding my breath knowing what was going to happen and yet still hoping against hope it wouldn’t then getting all teary eyed when it did anyway… wanting to jump up and stomp my feet and wave my hands unrestrained like the actors on stage did… and, oh heavens, wanting to sing along… feeling the magic… realizing, finally, that I was watching The Lion King through the eyes of a child and that those eyes were mine!

Tickets to The Lion King, which range in price from P1,900 to P7,250, are available through TicketWorld (www.ticketworld.com.ph).

Luna Giño-Inocian is a freelance writer and playwright who has been working with various theater companies since 1978, notably Repertory Philippines and TRUMPETS.