The touring production of Lion King gets Filipino touches

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TWENTY years since it first opened on Broadway in 1997, The Lion King is finally coming to Manila for the first time, and for its production here, it will have a Filipino touch.

“We have a few local references or a few lines in the local language,” assistant director Anthony Lyn told BusinessWorld in a recent press conference about the production which is currently touring Asia.

“[A] few of the jokes will be updated with the local references. I hope the people appreciate and laugh at [them],” he said.

Asked for a sample, he declined, smiling, saying he would not want to preempt the show.

“You strike a fine balance when you mount a show like Lion King. You want to try and do, and tip your hat in the local culture, but at the same time, you want to make sure you don’t change the show so much,” he added.

Presented by Michael Cassel Group and Concertus Manila in association with Disney Theatrical Productions, The Lion King has another Filipino touch six Filipino children (three boys and three girls) who will play as the young Nala and Simba. (For a number of reasons, touring productions tend to cast the child characters in the cities where the show will be performed.)

The Lion King is not only an international production, but multinational as well, with 18 nationalities represented in the company. In keeping with the show’s spirit, 45 of the 51 members in the cast come from South Africa.

This Disney movie follows the adventures of the young lion Simba, heir to the throne of his father, King Mufasa. Simba’s ambitious and wicked uncle, Scar, attempts to kill father and son in order to take the throne himself. But while Mufasa is killed in a stampede of wildebeests, the cub Simba escapes and goes into exile. The adult Simba eventually returns to redeem his heritage from Scar and take his rightful place in the Circle of Life.

Mr. Lyn said the biggest challenge in The Lion King is how to make a believable and relatable transition from screen animation to the stage as a live performance. The solution they found was the costumes. The actors do not wear animal onesies as if they were mascots, instead, the cast members wear masks, makeup, and costumes in what the production calls as the “double event.”

The “double event” aims to show the humans in the animals, a concept developed by The Lion King’s original Broadway director Julie Taymor — she is the first woman to win the Tony Award for directing a musical, and also won a Tony Award for Original Costume Design for this show.

“It’s simple but genius: the human remains visible in the costume in order to see their emotions,” said Mr. Lyn.

The characters wear masks but these stay on top of their heads. They are controllable so they can go up and down, depending on what the scene requires. For example, in a fight scene between prides, the lions’ masks will be in front of the actors’ faces.

The men playing Timon and Zazu though, have to learn how to move around as if they are puppeteers and ventriloquists.

The ensemble is responsible for manipulating the more than 200 puppets of 25 kinds of animals, birds, insects, and fish. For example, ensemble members playing the giraffes have to learn how to walk on stilts.

How will the animals dance and move? “The vocabulary of the lion movements are inspired from the Javanese dances,” said Mr. Lyn, explaining that Ms. Taymor stayed in Indonesia for four years where she had a theater company and imbibed the local culture.

As a salute to the culture of South Africa where tribal chiefs are women, Rafiki — the old and wise baboon in the animated feture — is a young woman leader, played by Ntsepa Pitjeng, in the live stage version.

“Your eyes will not come off the stage. There is something for everyone: the set design, the costumes, the props are incredible,” said South African actress Noxolo Dlamini, who plays the adult Nala.

“Just the story in itself is touching and there is so much to look out for. If you’ve seen it three times, you still wouldn’t get bored. I mean, there’s still a lot to see. Everybody can relate with what the characters go through. It’s a human story,”

So can we still be surprised? “The story is the same, but now you feel like you are in it, especially when the song begins. You feel like you are transported to Africa and all the elements, like the Balinese movements. It is the whole world, it is Africa, it is Asia. All these cultures are being put together to create this one story,” said Calvyn Grandling, who plays the adult Simba.

The Lion King will have performances at The Theatre at Solaire from March 18 to May 6. Tickets are available through TicketWorld ( — Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman