'Lion King' roars to life at the Arsht Center

The Disney Theatrical Group is having a banner year. Two of its shows, the play Peter and the Starcatcher and the musical Newsies, are major contenders for the Tony Awards that will be presented June 10. And at the beginning of last month, a little Disney show called The Lion King claimed the crown of Broadway’s highest-grossing show from The Phantom of the Opera, earning $853,846,062 to Phantom’s $853,122,847 — despite the fact that Phantom has been running a decade longer.

Now that’s a king of the Broadway jungle.

South Florida has experienced the power of Disney’s biggest stage hit twice, in 2002 and 2007 when The Lion King had long runs at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Now it’s Miami’s turn to play host to director Julie Taymor’s Tony-winning triumph, as The Lion King plays the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts right up until a few hours before this year’s Tony telecast. Broadway touring shows that stop at the Arsht normally run one week. The Lion King will be in Miami for four.

“ The Lion King is the gold standard for us,” says Thomas Schumacher, the Disney Theatrical Group president who was running the company’s feature animation division when the smash Lion King movie came out in 1994. “It has had more productions than anything else, has reached the largest audience and is now the biggest money earner. It’s not tied to fashion or fad; it’s enduring … It’s an allegory, a story about our families and us.”

That it is. As its thematic anthem, Elton John and Tim Rice’s Circle of Life, suggests, the musical encompasses birth, death and everything in between. As in the movie, the noble lion king Mufasa sacrifices his own life to save his headstrong young son Simba. Mufasa’s evil brother Scar commits fratricide and rules over a dying kingdom. Young love blossoms when Simba reencounters his boyhood friend Nala, then finds the brave purpose that would make his late father proud. The darker elements of The Lion King’s universally resonant story are the stuff of Greek tragedy, but the reliably moving musical glows with a hopeful ending and many moments of beauty, joy and the celebration of life.

Before the long nightmare that was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark — Taymor, that show’s original director and coauthor, was let go after a prolonged period of creative differences — she proved herself a visionary artist who could go beyond Disney’s wildest dreams with the way she transformed The Lion King from an animated children’s movie into a brilliant, beautifully designed piece of theater.

“Its essence is something we can all relate to,” says Colombia-born Felipe Gamba, Disney Theatrical’s director of international production strategy. “But it’s also the way Julie Taymor transformed the movie into a theatrical experience that touches you no matter what your culture … When Rafiki calls out in those opening moments, we all hear her. It summons everyone, regardless of their origins.”

Taymor is still involved with The Lion King, but it falls to associate director John Stefaniuk to make sure the various productions of the show hew to her vision and standards.

“I preserve the integrity of Julie’s work all over the world,” he says. “So many musicals become stale, and the audience isn’t getting the same show as the original … We put each cast through the same process that the actors went through before opening night on Broadway … I still feel excited and moved and engaged by this show.”

For two of the cast members in the Lion King’s touring company, playing the Arsht Center means coming home. Syndee Winters, a Palmetto High graduate, is playing the adult Nala, a role she has coveted since she was a child. Sharron Williams, a New World School of the Arts and Florida State University grad, plays multiple roles — a cheetah, a lioness, a wildebeest, a hyena and more. Both women trained as dancers and are thrilled to be performing in a show choreographed by Garth Fagan, a Tony-winning modern dance figure.

“When the show played South Florida before, I was in Miami but I couldn’t afford a ticket to see it,” says Winters, who plans to teach a class at her old high school while the show is at the Arsht. “When you come to see The Lion King, you suspend your disbelief. For the next two and a half hours, you belong to us. You could be the biggest, buffest guy, but when you hear Circle of Life, you’re affected. You get a lump in your throat. You get chills.”

Winters’ pal Williams, who will also teach a class while the show is in town, expects as many as 30 people in her extended family will see The Lion King during its Arsht run. For her, the show’s appeal is a combination of story, design, music and Fagan’s demanding choreography.

“When I first saw it, I laughed, I cried, I was touched in every way,” Williams says. “The work is challenging. The beat of the drums, the costumes, the music — they make you feel fierce. I get excited every time.”


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