Disney’s “The Lion King” starts with a surprise. Rafiki, the wise, narrating baboon bursts into that opening line of “The Circle of Life” that everyone knows but to which nobody knows the real words. A bright orange sun gently rises from the horizon. Suddenly, elephants, birds, gazelles, cheetahs and more walk through the audience to meet her and the break of day. Each animal is life size in an intricate costume that is a work of art. All those lucky enough to witness this opening scene when “The Lion King” was presented by Blumenthal Performing Arts from Aug. 22 to Sept. 9, marveled in exuberance and beauty.
There is a lot to discuss in terms of “The Lion King.” I could write a book about each individual aspect–the choreography, the music, the plot or the costumes. But I think the main attribute to recognize about this production is its awareness of the world. “The Lion King” recognizes grief and horror, but more importantly, it takes everything that is beautiful in the world and, using the context of the often under and misrepresented continent of Africa, puts it onstage.
The first burst of beauty comes from the sets and costumes. Each individual animal–be it a lion, a warthog, a hyena or a wild buffalo–is so perfectly crafted with every detail taken care of. The plants and water are too. At one point, about 24 performers are dressed in long, tan hoop skirts with a flat rectangle that holds grass on their heads; they are the scenery that depict the African Savanna through which Simba travels. At the point where Mufasa appears in the sky to give Simba strength, seven or eight large pieces of what appears to be wood come together in the star-lit sky to create Mufasa’s huge face. Each aspect of the sets and costumes recognize and celebrate the diversity of nature and the earth and the uniqueness of each species. When you witness it, you marvel at the craftsmanship and then you wonder about what it’s really like to see these animals and see these areas of the world that you may not have ever thought of as beautiful.
Immediately, along with the costumes, we hear the score (a majority of which is credited to Elton John, Tim Rice, Hans Zimmer and Lebo M), all of which is influenced by multiple African cultures. Most people can sing along to at least one song, be it the upbeat and goofy “Hakuna Matata” or the serenade of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” At one particularly outstanding point, lights come up on the whole stage and a large chorus dressed in all different colors sings to Simba that Mufasa’s spirit is alive in him. At this moment, when harmonies fit so perfectly together, like clasped hands held up in prayer, the audience is lifted up.
Later in the musical is when you really start to notice the movement. “The Lion King’s” choreography, directed by Garth Fagan, again recognizes the value of each individual creature. Fagan makes each character move like it should: the cheetah moves in an almost-sexy stalk, Pumbaa (the warthog) moves thumpily across the stage, gazelles leap from side to side. The movement celebrates the individuality of all living things, which draws a newfound respect for them.
Finally, supported by all the beautiful artistic details, we have the story. Simba, the protagonist, struggles with romance, friendship and family. We realize that, like with his uncle Scar, relationships are not always good and can be really dangerous. But in general, the good relationships (his true love Nala, his mother and father and his two best friends Timon and Pumbaa) outweigh the bad. We see the beauty relationships can have, like the fact that Timon and Pumbaa stick by Simba even though he’s just some lost kid (and a carnivore, at that!). Their natural instincts, to be afraid or to eat one another, are overridden by kindness; the lion lies down with the warthog. Once again, “The Lion King” celebrates what is good and beautiful and lets an audience witness it, so that we too might look out for the beauty that is around us.
There are many lessons that “The Lion King” teaches us. We learn about love, about staying true to yourself and about betrayal and fear. But I think the most important lesson that we should learn is just to pay attention. “The Lion King” is not naive; it does not forget to confront the evils of the world. But the main point is just to look around. The first step to kindness and respect is just to notice things. We should notice other people and build relationships; we should listen to music and watch people dance and we should sing and dance too; we should look for plants and animals and nature and everything that the world has to offer.
Much like the opening of the show, often what is beautiful comes in a surprise. Once you start to really look around and pay attention, you are brilliantly surprised to find that beauty has always been around you.