Disney’s The Lion King musical at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – review

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Disclaimer: we received review tickets for The Lion King at Wales Millennium Centre

It’s been seen by more than 110 million people, in more than 100 cities in 20 countries, in nine different languages. It’s the West End’s best-selling stage show and the sixth longest running West End show of all time, filling theatres in London since 1999. It’s been on Broadway since 1997, where it’s the third longest running show, grossing more than $1 billion, making it the highest grossing Broadway production of all time.

And now, it’s in Cardiff for a seven-week summer run as part of a UK tour, delayed by two years due to the pandemic.

It is, of course, Disney’s The Lion King Musical, which opened at Wales Millennium Centre at the end of last week. We were thrilled to be at last night’s press night, where local reviewers and a few Welsh celebs were among the audience.

Read on for our full review.

Disney’s The Lion King musical at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – review

Even before we took to our seats at Wales Millennium Centre last night, we knew that The Lion King was going to be something very special indeed. But nothing can quite prepare you for the magical experience of watching a live Disney stage production. You might think you know what to expect from The Lion King musical if you’ve watched the 1994 animated film of The Lion King and the 2019 live action remake, and while there’s plenty of the familiar that fans will love, the whole experience is just so magical and all-encompassing you can’t help but be amazed.

The opening – as the animals of the jungle come to greet the new-born lion cub Simba to the sounds of one of the musical’s most famous songs, The Circle of Life – blew me away. It’s visually stunning, so creative, so unexpected, it left the audience gasping out loud. Definitely one of the best openings to a musical I’ve ever seen and surprisingly emotional too.

From there it just kept on delivering with incredible performances, imaginative costumes, stunning scenery, and much-loved songs combining with new music and a few additions to the plot to turn the hour and a half animation on which the stage show is based into two hours and forty minutes of pure theatrical magic.

The production involves more than 50 performers and most of my favourite moments involved the big ensemble numbers which fill the stage and on several occasions the whole auditorium too. There’s such grace and beauty in the choreography, as the performers embody the animals they are portraying.

Stand out performances come from Thandazile Soni as Rafiki who commands the auditorium with her vocals, stage presence and costume; Jean-Luc Guizonne as Mufasa, Richard Hurst as Scar, Stephenson Ardern-Sodje as the grown up Simba, and of course the two young performers playing Young Simba and Young Nala. We saw Joshua Khanyisa Smith and Riley-Ann Nicholls Murphy but there are several other children playing each of the roles throughout the run. Simba especially is a big part to play with a strong vocal number in the shape of I Just Can’t Wait To Be King and Joshua performed with a confidence that belies his years.

Alan McHale and Carl Sanderson provide plenty of comedy as Timon and Pumbaa, the duo who Simba befriends when he leaves the kingdom; while Matthew Forbes has some great one liners as hornbill Zazu, the royal advisor. Nokwanda Khuzwayo as grown up Nala also deserves a mention; it’s great to see her character given more prominence than in the film because let’s face it, it’s a very male-dominated story (and on that note it’s great that Rafiki, male in the film, is female in the musical.).

The whole show is breathtakingly beautiful to watch and the creative teams have absolutely excelled themselves in bringing the Disney magic to life. Some of the performers are dressed as animals, with intricate mechanisms helping their limbs and masks move, while others are puppeteers powering their characters. And then there are the larger creatures moving so realistically around the stage, you can’t help but wonder how these were brought to life.

The sets are a lot simpler than other Disney musicals I’ve seen, but they are so effective, working closely with the lighting team to create stunning backdrops. Striking silhouettes are set against the orange-red glow of the African plains, while the clear starry night skies are so evocative. Special effects are used sparingly but powerfully so when they do – Mufasa appearing in the stars, characters falling – they provide real wow moments.

Aside from the most familiar songs (Circle of Life, I Just Can’t Wait To Be King, Hakuna Matata, Can You Feel The Love Tonight?) there’s so much new music too. They Live In You (and its reprise He Lives In You) is a great addition to the stage musical, in which Mufasa teaches Simba about the great kings of the past, while there’s a huge emphasis on African rhythms and melodies, with Lebo M’s arrangements creating such atmosphere.

The official age guidance is six+ with no admittance to under threes. I’ve had a few people ask on Instagram whether it’s suitable for children aged four or five and I think this would depend on the individual child and requires parental discretion. It’s long at almost two hours and 40 minutes including a 15 minute interval, and there are a few scary moments, such as the hyenas and the elephant graveyard, and sad scenes such as Mufasa’s death. Although these will be familiar to children who have watched the films, more sensitive youngsters may find it a little overwhelming. That said, it’s such a vibrant and visual show that these moments are short-lived with so much to capture the attention. My children are 12, 10 and 8 so perfect ages for such a production, although I definitely would have taken them if they were four or five as it’s not often such an incredible show lands in your home city (in fact, the last time was in 2014 when I missed out on seeing it as my youngest was a little baby).

There are still a limited number of tickets available although the show is very close to selling out so if you would like to see it but haven’t already bought tickets then don’t hang about.

Disney’s The Lion King is at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff until 27 August. Tickets are priced from £22.50. See the Wales Millennium Centre website for more details including booking.

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