As I walked up the stairs of Philadelphia's Academy of Music and found my seat in the second-to-last row of the amphitheater, I questioned how the Disney classic, The Lion King, set in the rolling expanse of the Pride Lands, could be replicated on stage. But from the very beginning, as a silk and aluminum sun rose over the stage to Circle of Life, I was transported to Simba’s home.
Although I know the story of The Lion King by heart and can sing each song (off-pitch) word-for-word, the production had many surprises in store for me. With its talented actors, innovative set design, and remarkable costumes, the musical captivated me up until the curtain closed.
Rafiki, played by Gugwana Dlamini, opened the show with a powerful voice. Her iconic first line, “nants ingonyama bagithi baba,” reverberated throughout the theater and captured everyone’s attention.
Along with impressive singing and dancing performances, the actors had to control the life-sized puppets of their characters. It was easy to forget about the people behind Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (John E. Brady)—there was no doubt in my mind that a real meerkat and warthog were reminding me not to worry in song.
The ensemble gave life to herds of animals—gazelles, giraffes, zebras, elephants, and lions—that danced across the stage and looked shockingly realistic. The dedication of every actor helped create an African landscape teeming with elegant wildlife—right here in Philadelphia.
The detail in the puppets’ craft was apparent even from the nosebleeds. A blend of abstract and realistic, the designs showcased the beauty of African wildlife as well as the artists’ skills. I was most impressed by the giraffe—standing at 18 feet, the puppet is maneuvered by an actor walking on four stilts with a long giraffe neck balanced on their head.
I left the theater with a deep appreciation for everyone involved in the creation of The Lion King on stage, because I saw how each element of the production was crucial in bringing the movie to life. You don’t need to buy a plane ticket to Africa—take a trip to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music instead!