The woman in front of me at the Arsht Center had never seen "The Lion King." Almost arrogant in my response, but not on purpose, I overheard her and interrupted, spouting off trivia: That the show is still running on Broadway, besides this national tour, and that, as of May 5, 2019, it was the third longest running Broadway show behind "The Phantom of the Opera," (13,015 performances per Playbill stats from The Broadway League), "Chicago" (1996 revival at 9,339 performances). "The Lion King" has logged 8,945 shows since it opened at the New Amsterdam Theater officially on Nov. 13, 1997. And, that now it's playing on Broadway at the Minskoff.
The director Julie Taymor, who imagined human actors as animals wearing costumes that employed puppetry and masks that are almost indescribable and part of the show's "wow" factor, was the first female in 1998 to win a Tony Award for directing a production.
"I have seen the movie," the woman in the aisle seat, Left Row F.
"Oh," I drawled, sounding almost sinister like Uncle Scar, the antagonist uncle and the second-born prince of the Pridelands, "the live musical is nothing like the movie."
And then the lights went down, luckily, so I didn't have to spew any more of my trivia (or shall I say trivial knowledge) of the show. Did you know that Hasbro released a "Lion King" Monopoly game this past April? Buy the Elephant Graveyard as one of your properties.
I have seen "The Lion King" nine times (at least). I knew already that the 10th time would be just as captivating. Even if the cast isn't at the top of its game, there are so many spectacular production elements, I decided a long time ago that "The Lion King" is something special, and, in its 22 years is an American theater classic. No, really.
I was hoping that the national touring company at the Arsht Center was going to be as perfect of an ensemble as I had seen each time before.
The African chant in Zulu that begins the show and has become a bit of pop culture sends chills. Rafiki sings:
Nants ingonyama bagithi baba (here comes the lion, father)
Sithi uhm ingonyama (oh, yes, it's a lion)
In this production, it was sung with the required (and admired) thunderous bellowing and exuberance by Mukelisiwe Goba (she shares the role with Buyi Zama, who performs it at the Arsht May 14 to May 26).
And, then, there's the spectacular. As the opening song "The Circle of Life" swells, the extravagant costume creations parade up two aisles of the Arsht, including an amazingly large element.
And, in the Arsht Center's layout, two sets of percussionists were planted inside what are usually box seats stage left and right. It was a treat to watch and listen to the artistry of percussionists Stefan Monssen and Reuven Weizberg, each with full sets of congas, djembes, timbales and a gong.
That's the thing about "The Lion King," while there is a well-crafted story (although I've always seen the similarities between the plot and "Hamlet,"; I'm not the first to do a side by side), great music and lyrics credited to Elton John and Tim Rice (although there are numerous other folks credited with adding additional lyrics), the show is practically perfect.
Favorites in this touring cast are the imposing Gerald Ramsey as the King Lion Mufasa, the clownish Greg Jackson as Zazu is perfectly uptight as the hornbill adviser to Mufasa, Jared Dixon in his first major Broadway touring production as adult Simba, the musical's protagonist, is captivating, and his love interest, Nala, Nia Holloway, who has made history as the youngest woman to play adult Nala in the history of the show, a sheer delight to watch, not to mention her showstopping rendition of the solo "Shadowland." More trivia: Nia got the role in 2013 at the age of 17 and has been in the tour ever since. She's now 23.
There are some updated current references in the show to listen for, certainly added since its two decade old debut: Zazu's line: "I have an annoying brother who is constantly tweeting," a reference to a curtain that "looks like a shower curtain from Tar-jay," and Timon's "That's how you beat Angry Birds." Disney self satirizes as Zazu sets out to annoy his new boss, Scar, by singing the over exposed song "Let It Go" from Disney's "Frozen."
Whether it's your first time for "The Lion King" or your 10th, it's one of those multi-faceted theatrical experiences that never fails to amaze. And, yes, it does so again at the Arsht.
"The Lion King" plays for three weeks through May 26 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Performances 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 1 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturday; 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets start at $25 to $150. For information, go to arshtcenter.org.