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'Lion King' transports audience to the heart of Africa

Disney’s musical rendition of “The Lion King” has come to San Diego, giving audience members the opportunity to be amazed by its visual beauty and amazing song and dance.

The North American National Tour – one of seven productions running worldwide, along with New York, London, Hamburg, Tokyo, Paris and Fukuoka – has musical and theatrical elements that will impact everyone who attends.

The opening scene transports the audience to Africa’s wildland and wildlife with “The Circle of Life.” Actors dressed in African garb and beautifully detailed animal costumes parade from the audience seats and theater wings to the beat of African drums while Rafiki (portrayed by Phindile Mkhize) prays blessing over Simba, the newborn lion cub.

Every scene of the popular play is visually stunning; even the grass dances, leaps and moves with the music and rhythm. It’s easy to see why this show has won multiple awards for music, choreography and drama.

Several new scenes are present in the musical and are helpful to fill in elements of the characters that had not been seen before. These additions make for a more comprehensive play and are just as enjoyable as every other element in the show.

Brightly colored ensemble characters and bird puppets also add color and interest to the most simple of scenes.

All of the favorite “Lion King” characters are present, some – like Zazu, Pumba and Timon – being portrayed as Bunraku puppets. These allow their puppeteers to be visible to the audience as they control large puppet dolls.

Every movement and gesture is understood and felt and gives the audience’s imagination wings.

The larger puppets, which can be as much as five feet tall, are operated by three-man teams. Because the puppeteers are visible, spectators can concentrate on the story or on the skill of the puppeteers.

The audience member sees a cheetah and giraffe, but at the same time sees the intricate movements of the puppeteers behind the animal as well.

Main characters, such as Simba and Nala, are portrayed using traditional African garb and masks. Their movements, dance and ability are what transform the actors into the characters they play.

The music by Tim Rice and Elton John in the animated version of “The Lion King” is familiar. There are also new songs from South African Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer introduced throughout the show as well. It’s difficult not to stand up and sing along, especially when the music is performed with such vivacity and enthusiasm.

Every scene is beautifully set, with the lighting and props transforming the stage into the Serengeti plains.

One of the most impacting and visualizing scenes is that of the wildebeest stampede in which Mufasa is killed.

The audience watches as thousands of wildebeests seem to rush straight at Simba and at the audience. The illusion of thousands of racing animals is achieved with a canvas scroll and a series of large rollers.

Wildebeests are painted on the scroll and each roller is equipped with sculptures of the animals. On each successive roller, the wildebeest sculptures are slightly larger until, closest to the audience, dancers rhythmically move huge wildebeest masks.

This design creates a false perspective of great distance.

When the scroll and rollers are moving, the audience seems to see waves of wildebeests driving forward.

Every human emotion is touched upon, making the play perfect for those who have grown up on the story and those who are just being introduced to it.

The show is a must-see for everyone who loves music, art, beauty and the mystical world of “The Lion King.”

The show will run until November 8 at the San Diego Civic Theatre, located at 3rd and B Street in downtown San Diego.

Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m .; Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m .; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m .; and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.

A special weekday matinee will take place Thursday, November 5, at 1 p.m. There will be no evening performance on Sunday, November 8.

Tickets cost between $20 and $132.50. For ticket information, call the Civic Theatre Ticket Office at (619) 570-1100 or Ticketmaster at (619) 220-TIXS. For group discounts, call (619) 564-3001.

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