Nineteen ninety four.
This was the year “The Lion King” movie was shown in Manila’s local cinemas. This was the year I first cried buckets from a scene in an animated film.
Three years after, who would expect a musical adaptation of this film and 20 years past, who would think that it’d have its first-ever international touring production in Manila? I never did, but I ecstatically joined theatregoers at The Theatre at Solaire for TLK, my favorite Disney’s magnum opus on its fourth show date after it premiered on March 28. Bringing with me were the curiosity and the anticipation how this musical would translate on stage the stampede and that touching scene where Simba was coaxing his beloved father back to life.
Joining me in another spectacular theatre experience after Les Miserables was my regular “partner in crime”, my sister Cristy. I didn’t anymore wonder whether we shared the same inquisitiveness.
A Black Saturday, we decided to leave Las Pinas earlier citing possible traffic (which was actually lighter since it was a Holy Week). In reality, we just wanted to have more time in archiving another epic day for the two of us. To be ahead of the other TLK fans would mean less encounter with photobombers and no queuing time just to have a photo with a particular backdrop. Hahahaha…
We felt no listlessness at all in the almost two hours of waiting for this Tony-award winning musical and hailed as “The World’s Number 1 Musical.”
Hopping from one background to another, my sister and I were like teenage girls who had separated our young giggling souls from our adult bodies to subject ourselves to one of our mild addictions which only occurred every two years.🤩
Believe you me, our smiles were plastered on our lips until we entered the orchestra. Even with my stilettos on, my excited steps gave me away.
“You got the perfect seat, sister!” I gushed as we took our place. It was the same section but we moved two rows forward, shortening our distance from the stage.
What made it more perfect was being just an arm’s away from several actors when they made their grand entrance via Door 3 while singing Elton John’s “Circle of Life”, which opened this breathtaking musical! Call me overdramatic, but I was already on the brink of tears (and even tempted doing an overearly standing ovation) when Pride Rock came alive right there at The Theatre. The elaborate and colorful costumes of the casts, the jaw-dropping manipulated and hollow puppets, the well-designed masks plus the distinctive sound of the African music I so dearly love placed me on the edge of my seat.
Constricted to do some big movements as proper theater decorum prescribes, I could only sway very little and lightly stomp very little. The musical had just begun and if its awesomeness would kill me, I would gladly allow it. But, let my death be slow…
Number after number I had to hold my breath. This musical teleported me to the jungle which became a place where you would no longer fear exploring alone. The changes in the stage design brought the different animals in flesh and blood and the savannah grasslands. My eyes had to be wide open and be glued on stage so as not to miss each scenery transformation.
Knowing the plot of “The Lion King”, I followed the smooth flow of the musical which contained not only the well-loved songs in the movie but newly composed pieces which are as hummable as “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, “Hakuna Matata”, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, and the magical “Circle of Life.” These songs bear the distinct characteristics of African rhythm, tone and melody whose authenticity was achieved even though they only have a two-man orchestra, playing modern and ethnic African musical instruments located at each side of the stage.
Saying that the actors for that evening gave a stunning performance of each song is an understatement.
The combination of puppetry and acting was a work of a genius in this theatre masterpiece. They have to actualize the movement of the animals in a slow-mo but creative pace which became visually and aesthetically pleasing.
I may be playing favorites, but Timon, Pumbaa, Zazu and the three hyenas have remained my well-loved characters in both film and musical versions. Timon was hilarious and a standout specially when he uttered “Salamat po“, “Magandang gabi“, “Mabuhay” and “baboy” in reference to his partner Pumbaa. The injections of these Filipino words elicited laughter and thunderous applause from the audience. It became interactive. In three instances though there was a delivery of asides that had me asking why and gave myself a homework afterwards. Then there were the young and the adult Simba, played by Caucasian actors (from the programme one could deduce that young Simba was a Filipino) which puzzled me since the characterization of his lineage is that of African descent (Mufasa and Sarabi, his parents, are black in the stage adaptation.) I even exchanged jokes with my sister during the 20-minute interval that there seems to be discrimination in the choice of the lead actor that night. Hmmmm… my critical ears and eyes might just be at work, but this did not reduce the great delight and amazement brought by TLK. Have I been satisfied by the stampede scene? Oh, it was magnificent! I might have not shed tears unabashedly, yet the musical succeeded in achieving the same level of poignancy in Mufasa’s death. The experience was pure enchantment. I was ready for a sweet death for I have been taken to the zenith of ecstasy.
The resounding applause and standing ovation during the curtain call were well-deserved by this Disney Theatrical Production which was dominated by African actors. My shouts of “bravo” articulated the kind of high I was in! It was another night which marked my sister and me as cultured, imaginative, creative and truly human.