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Review: The Lion King at Sunderland Empire Theatre

Disney's monster money-spinner shows what all the fuss is about as The Lion King opens in Sunderland

*****
The Lion King
The Lion King is coming to Sunderland Empire Theatre

In the theatrical jungle this is now officially the biggest beast – the highest grossing musical in history.

Earlier this week Disney announced it had taken almost £4 billion at the box office since it first opened in America in 1997, three years after the Oscar-winning film it’s based on.

Now comes the chance for North East theatre-goers to swell the show’s estimated total audience of 75 million.

Tuesday night’s official first performance started a little late but the reason for insisting everyone was seated in good time soon became apparent.

This is a hugely elaborate show that comes at you from all directions. Clear aisles are a necessity.

The theatre was packed. Naturally expectations were high, particularly among those – like myself – who knew the show only by reputation.

In almost every respect, expectations were met. This may be Africa viewed through largely western eyes – a Disneyfication, if you like – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a feast for the senses.

The story is simple, sweet and age-old. A lion cub, Simba, grows up to avenge his mighty, admired and betrayed father, Mufasa. But the show’s success lies in the telling of it.

The Lion King is a work of art that makes a virtue of artifice. It is like a smooth-running machine in which you can see all the working parts. The trickery is part of it.

A herd of leaping gazelles is represented by a bicycle-like contraption; the actors playing the lions wear headgear that lies somewhere between mask and hat; the comic meerkat is manipulated by an actor dressed all in green – and curiously it’s the meerkat you watch.

The genius of director Julie Taymor is referred to frequently in the souvenir programme and it’s hard to dispute.

In a story about animals, the fabulously costumed and made-up humans are in the thick of it all but it’s not as incongruous as you might think.

A cheetah is a woman who moves a cheetah puppet with cheetah-like grace; giraffes are humans on stilts who move in that distinctively slow-motion, giraffe-like way.

On many occasions the stage is so full of colour and basic cleverness that it’s mesmerising. Elton John’s music, drums and exuberant African chanting to the fore, soars high into an imagined African sky.

There are moments of humour but for me it was the beauty of the spectacle and the movement, closer perhaps to contemporary dance than anything else, that won the day. The Lion King deserves its place in history. A standing Wearside audience roared its approval.

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