‘The Lion King’ opens Broadway in Boston season, delights all ages

"The Lion King" impresses with witty references and a timeless story. Pedro Plassen Lopes via Flickr Creative Commons

If you found yourself walking through the campus center on the morning of Sept. 17, you may have been puzzled by the line wrapping itself from the downstairs ATM machines up to the second floor and back down again toward the Rez. However, avid theater lovers knew exactly what they were waiting for: a ticket to Broadway’s “The Lion King” on tour at the Boston Opera House — the Lexus Broadway in Boston’s 2014/2015 season opener. Coordinated by the Tufts Entertainment Board and the Office of Campus Life, 58 tickets to the world-acclaimed show were made available to students, some of whom were willing to wait four hours for their shot to see the musical. And for Tufts students lucky enough to grab a seat, the show did not disappoint.

For those who don’t know, “The Lion King” was first brought to the silver screen by Disney in 1994, and follows the story of Simba (played in this production by Jelani Remy), a young lion born into a pride on the African savanna. A vivacious cub, Simba’s youthful happiness turns to dismay and despair after the death of his father, Mufasa (L. Steven Taylor). Simba subsequently leaves the pride lands, and is adopted by Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), an unlikely prairie dog and wildebeest duo who teach him how to live by their motto: “Hakuna Matata,” or “no worries.” In this way, Simba is able to shun his past … at least until duty requires him to return once more.

The musical compellingly captures both the artistic and emotional beauty entwined in this story of love, hope, despair and, ultimately, redemption. From the moment the score begins with “The Circle of Life,” audiences are likely to be blown away by the puppetry used to depict the animals lumbering, leaping and prancing across the stage as a paper sun slowly rises from the floor. Two “giraffes,” comprised of two humans walking on four stilts that support them several feet in the air appear next, prompting gasps of surprise and admiration. Even an elephant makes its way into the fold of animals bowing down towards Pride Rock as the young Simba is lifted into the air and presented to the animal kingdom.

As the opening scene ends, we are introduced to Scar (Patrick R. Brown) and his evil plot to win the kingship for himself, and in the subsequent scene to Rafiki, the pride’s shaman — played by South African Tshidi Manye in various productions since 1999. Manye’s portrayal of Rafiki is thrilling, as is the character’s sense of humor (he knocks Simba over the head to help explain to him why he has to put the past — and his pain — behind him). In addition to lending a lighthearted flare to the show, Manye embodies wisdom itself as Rafiki helps Simba see that his father’s spirit lives on in those who love him. Funny and wise, Manye’s character emblematizes both the hilarious and more serious sides of the show.

Musical-goers are also treated to some tongue-in-cheek pop culture references, delightful jokes that stray from the original script. One such example was the advice of Zazu (Drew Hirshfield), the king’s advisor, to Scar. When asked by the stewing lion how to feel better about his troubles, Zazu lauches into his rendition of “Let It Go,” the chart-topping single from Disney’s most recent animated feature film, “Frozen” (2013). 

Overall, the ageless story — brought to life with beautiful costumes (designed by Tony Award-winning Newton, Mass. native Julie Taymor) and delightful humor — is a moving experience for young and old alike, and well worth a trip into Boston (if you can get a ticket, that is). “The Lion King” will be playing in Boston until Oct. 12.