The Lion King Comes Home With Jaw-Dropping And Awe-Inspiring Performance at The Orpheum Theatre


Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

My dad and I couldn’t figure it out, but it has been 22 or 25 years since I first saw The Lion King on Broadway in New York. Whether it was 22 or 25, it feels like a lifetime ago yet I vividly remember it. I remember the animals walking down the aisle and being completely in awe of the imagery of the performance. I would go on to see a few more shows on Broadway in my lifetime (and hope to continue to do so) but The Lion King is the one that I always go back and think about. I had the opportunity to re-experience this magical music on Thursday night as it made it’s triumphant return to Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theatre.

What do I mean by a triumphant return? Quick fun fact: The Lion King actually debuted at this very theatre back in July 1997 before moving to Broadway and continues to be a highlight for many people in the theatre scene. It is still running after more than 8,500 performances, and after what I witnessed on Thursday night, it’s clear that there is not stopping this production, nor should there be any stopping it.

I will not waste any time explaining the background of the Disney movie turned musical. Honestly, if you don’t know the story of The Lion King, I feel like you wouldn’t be reading this. Also, if you don’t know the story of The Lion King, I have no choice but to assume you live under a rock. It’s an iconic film with a beautiful message behind it and I’ll leave it at that. That being said, there are spoilers in here so if you really haven’t seen the movie, move forward carefully.

One of the first things that struck me about this musical is that nothing has changed. Sometimes that can be a bad thing as it shows that something or someone is resistant to change, but I don’t mean it as bad here. In fact, it added to the magic of the night. It would be so easy to re-do this musical with the help of technology. From replacing the shadowed puppetry that happens throughout the performance to making the costumes more realistic, there’s a lot of opportunity for technology to take over and make this a more realistic performance. Thankfully, that’s not what has happened. A perfect example of this musical staying true to it’s roots was when Simba is confronted by the ghost of his dad, King Mufasa. The stage was darkened but you could see dancers scurrying across holding poles with what seemed to be random shapes attached to the top. The dancers swirled around the stage creating this super cool and fluid imagery with the way drops of light hit the shapes on top of the poles they were carrying. It wasn’t long until I realized that these shapes were not just organically moving throughout the air, they were starting to form a image and that image was the head of Mufasa. I watched in awe as you could see Mufasa’s face fluidly move as dancers would subtly shift while holding their “piece of the face”. This was one of those moments where a projector could have just come in and taken over but I am so glad that’s not the route they went. Now that I try to explain this all to you, I realize just how hard it is to put into words but it was one of the many stunning parts throughout the performance that left my jaw on the ground.

The costuming of this performance is fantastic. There’s no other way to put it and honestly, as I sit here and try to figure out how to explain it all to you, I feel lost to words. You can tell which animal is which but there’s something abstract and almost avant-garde about some of the outfits. My personal favorite is the giraffes. There seem to be very Salvador Dali inspired with their spindly legs. A clear favorite of the audience around me was the elephant. Unfortunately, the elephant created by two people wearing a beautifully elaborate yet somehow understated costume was only seen at the beginning of the performance when it came down the aisles. Whether you liked the giraffes, the elephant, or the almost bike-like structure that carried jumping gazelles across the stage, The Lion King was visual overload in all the right ways.

For me, the acting and actual performance came second to the imagery. I feel bad saying that because I know the performers poured their hearts out on the stage but this performance is just so grand and intricate that there were many moments that I almost forgot there were people singing and performing up there. Obviously seeing the talent of the youngsters playing a young Simba and a young Nala were impressive and cute but, out of all of the performances, Mukelisiwe Goba playing Rafiki seemed to be the only one to pull me away from the visuals wholly. Mukelisiwe’s portrayal of the wise mandrill (yes, I looked it up and he is a mandrill, not a baboon) was magical to say the least. From their voice to the way they moved on stage, Mukelisiwe was a true stand-out performer in an already absolutely stunning performance.

Although I’m sure it annoyed some people, I loved the fact that there were so many families at this performance. I mean, it makes sense, right? It’s The Lion King– a beloved children’s movie turned musical. I feel like the ooh’s and aah’s from the young children sitting directly behind my boyfriend and I were beyond adorable and I loved to hear the questions they were asking their parents throughout the performance. I feel like it added a spark of wonderment and joy whereas my boyfriend found it distracting. I only bring this up because, for me, it was different than the musicals and other theatre performances I find myself in. I knew to expect a hoard of kids so I was mentally prepared but I could see how this could get distracting for some.

22 or 25 years ago, I saw The Lion King on Broadway. I was too young to appreciate the magic behind the performance yet somehow the images from that night have stuck with me all these years. Seeing it again on Thursday night and being able to appreciate the performance for the stunning and enchanting one that it is was truly a night I will never forget.

It doesn’t matter who you are, what age you are, if you like the music of The Lion King or even like the idea of The Lion King in general– see this performance. It will take your breath away in a way you didn’t think possible.