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The Lion King - Sunday Herald view

Yes, we felt the love tonight.

Nicholas Nkuna takes centre stage as Simba in The Lion King, nailing a showpiece solo song in the second half
Nicholas Nkuna takes centre stage as Simba in The Lion King, nailing a showpiece solo song in the second half

A standing ovation was no less than this production of The Lion King, on its first UK tour, deserved; but the roars of approval had started at the very beginning, when a procession of colourful puppet animals, including a near life-sized elephant, made its elegant way down the aisles and onto the stage.

Coupled with African chants and singing from behind, beside and before the audience, plus the "stereo" effect of twin percussionists positioned in the Playhouse's circle-level boxes, this was a spectacle that made Imax, 3D and surround sound cinema look like a pirated VHS tape.

Cinema is, of course, where most of the audience's journey with The Lion King would have begun, and the West End stage show remains true to the Disney animation. This is still the story of headstrong lion cub Simba being tricked out of his savannah throne by his wicked uncle Scar after the death of his father Mufasa, only to embrace his destiny as a young adult.

However, the producers' determination to embed a stronger sense of African storytelling traditions, musical styles and visual design into the stage show makes for a much richer experience. The result is something that skilfully balances centuries-old myth with Hollywood movie formula.

The Disney comfort blanket for younger children (the show is suitable for age six and above) is there to see in that most Uncle Walt-approved device - the anthropomorphic comedy sidekicks. Timon (John Hasler) and Pumbaa (Lee Ormsby) are, in both design and dialogue terms, the closest approximations to the cartoon originals, and so provide a recognisable reference point for the youngsters.

There are also familiar pantomime tricks to be had from the way Stephen Carlile's fruity, deep, posh voice channels the spirit of a thousand villains past as the usurping lion Scar (and he accepted his curtain call boos with appropriately good grace). The same goes for Meilyr Sion as fussy majordomo Zazou, a hornbill who, for culturally illogical but commercially smart reasons, now sports a Miss Jean Brodie Morningside accent. This did make for one extremely good musical gag later on, though.

The panto element is simply proof that this stage musical translation of The Lion King really does have something for everyone. Elsewhere, its West End pedigree can be heard less in Elton John and Tim Rice's superior writing for the original film (Circle Of Life, Hakuna Matata, Can You Feel The Love Tonight and so on) than in the additional songs written by others for the theatre. In the latter camp, Shadowland and Endless Night provide second-half showpiece solo numbers for, respectively, Ava Brennan and Nicholas Nkuna, who play Nala and Simba respectively. These songs sound more synth-string dated than the others, written earlier.

On the other hand, the show's African credentials are rooted in the spirited performance of South African actress Gugwanda Dlamini as the shaman baboon Rafiki. Perhaps it has something to do with the gender switch from the cartoon, perhaps it's the fact that her singing has the strongest resonance of traditional styles, but she more than anyone else makes a character distinctively her own.

The star of the show, however, will always be the ground-breaking direction and design by Julie Taymor, who has achieved theatrical magic with her approach to combined choreography, puppetry and mask creations. Just when all of the colourful illusions seemed to have been done (the Pride Rock gathering, the wildebeest stampede) along comes another (Mufasa's face in the sky) to take our collective breath away. Theatrical craft of this world-class standard wouldn't be amiss within the programme of the Edinburgh International Festival.

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