Buyi Zama in THE LION KING North American Tour. ©Disney. Photo: Joan Marcus

The Lion King

Music and Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice
Additional Music and Lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer
Book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi
Based on the Screenplay by Irene Mecchi & Jonathan Roberts & Linda Woolverton
Directed by Julie Taymor

A review by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents are copyright © 2019 by Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

Back in the early nineties, Disney had the audacious idea to turn one of their animated hits into a Broadway musical. Beauty and the Beast hit the Great White Way in 1994 to solid ticket sales and is still playing today. It has gone on to spawn countless touring, professional, school, and community theater productions. Audiences loved it, but the critics weren’t so kind and the reviews were soft at best.

Not so with their next attempt. The Lion King hit Broadway in 1997 and was a success in every way, earning critical acclaim and much respect for its creatively artistic take on the 1994 film, and continues to play Broadway and touring every few years. The latest touring version has just come to Louisville, and it is something to behold!

Performed in the style of African folk art, the show combines actors with lavish costumes and puppets, creating an assortment of animal characters populating the Pride Lands of Africa. The performers even become scenery at certain points. In a tale loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and with a nod to the Biblical stories of Joseph and Moses), a young lion prince is exiled after a tragedy and strikes out on his own, until fate intervenes to bring him back to take his rightful place as King.

The brainchild of director Julie Taymor, the show is a visual marvel. Explosions of color wash over the stage with every production number, and the rich music of Elton John combined with the African choir creations of Lebo M. propel the story forward unlike anything else I’ve seen on stage. The mind boggles at the intricate melding of choreography, props, and costumes that would have had to all be conceived simultaneously in order to blend together so flawlessly.

Buyi Zama steals the show as the wise mandrill Rafiki, who opens the show with the rousing Circle of Life number, and adds a lot of humor to her scattered appearances. She also belts out a powerful rendition of the show’s best song, the ten o’clock number He Lives in You. Walter Russell III and Celina Smith are adorable as the young Simba and his friend Nala, respectively, delivering a rousing rendition of the jovial I Just Can’t Wait to be King.

As the adult Simba, Brandon A. McCall acquits himself well with the emotional ballad Endless Night, but acting-wise, he manages the difficult task of overdoing it in an already over-the-top production. Kayla Cyphers fares better as the adult Nala, and provides a lovely rendition of one of the show’s best songs, Shadowland (although here is my strongest critique: the chorus singing under her didn’t blend well; the mostly female backup singers were nearly drowned out by a deep bass male voice which was very distracting on this number).

Any show with heavy conflict lives and dies on the strength of its villain, and Spencer Plachy’s take on Simba’s murderous uncle Scar is truly memorable. Capturing the spirit of the film’s fey characterization, but blowing it up for the stage, he manages to be both comical and menacing at the same time. His Be Prepared number is truly chilling, and his severe mood swings during The Madness of King Scar reveal just how unhinged and dangerous this character really is. Finally, the two comic relief characters and Simba’s best friends, the meerkat Timon and warthog Pumba (played hilariously by Nic Corileone and Ben Lipitz, respectively) provide all the fart jokes you could ever want in a family musical.

A complete success all the way around, The Lion King is Disney at their best and a shining example of what amazing things can be done in live theater.

Featuring Keith Bennett, Nick Cordileone, Kayla Cyphers, Jurgen Hooper, Brilyn Johnston, Ben Lipitz, Brandon A. McCall, Richard A. Phillips Jr., Spencer Plachy, Gerald Ramsey, Walter Russell III, Celina Smith, Bobby Swift, Martina Sykes, and Buyi Zama.

The Lion King

October 30 – November 17, 2019

PNC Broadway In Louisville
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40204


Craig Nolan Highley
has been active in local theatre as an actor, director and producer for more than 14 years. In June 2019 he launched a new company with Jeremy Guiterrez, Theatre Reprise. He has worked with Bunbury Theater, Clarksville Little Theatre, Finnigan Productions, Louisville Repertory Company, Savage Rose Classical Theatre Co., and WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theatre among others. He has been a member of the Wayward Actors Company since 2006, and currently serves as their Board President. Craig’s reviews have also appeared in TheatreLouisville and Louisville Mojo.