It has taken 24 long years for the musical adaptation of The Lion King to reach New Zealand's shores, but Disney's grandest musical has finally arrived in Auckland as the final stop on a three-year, Covid-interrupted international tour.
And after being ghosted on Australian and other tours for so long, Kiwis can now feel slightly smug in the knowledge that when they head to Spark Arena, they are witnessing the only version of this production on stage in the world right now.
Putting the controversy over MIQ spaces aside, The Lion King feels like a well-earned treat after months of managing to keep Covid at bay. When the lights dim and those immortal opening bars of Circle of Life echoed through the arena, generating an immediate roar from the crowd, you can't help but recognise how lucky we are to be able to enjoy shows like this.
And what a show it is. The Lion King has become one of those Disney products where the plot, characters and music have penetrated our collective consciousnesses, even if you can't quite remember when you last saw the movie.
The musical has most of those same elements - the music, the characters, the Hamlet-inspired story of a young lion cub and his vindicative, power-hungry uncle – but what makes the stage version work is the pure theatricality of it.
All through a Circle of Life, it is impossible to decide where to look, as dozens of the most intricate, large-scale puppets you'll see in any show traipse on stage, a visual feast that gives you too much to choose between. The craftsmanship and technical achievement in each individual piece keeps your attention hooked throughout, and the African-inspired costumes brighten the show with a kaleidoscope of colours that helps the live version maintain its vibrant animated origins.
The Oscar-winning music and songs of Hans Zimmer, Elton John and Tim Rice are included here, alongside new pieces designed just for the production, and they are even more powerful on stage. Anthony Lawrence is a standout as the camp, devious Scar, while Futhi Mhlongo is a consistent highlight whenever her Rafiki – and powerful vocals – snatch the spotlight.
Auckland-raised Nick Afoa takes the lead role of Simba, a character he portrayed for four years on the West End, and you can tell the role fits him like a glove, swinging on stage near the end of the first act and injecting a particularly Kiwi energy to the role that is a joy to witness.
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The only downside to this production is the choice of Spark Arena as a venue over a more traditional location like The Civic. It was a surprising choice when first announced, one made more confusing as the production hasn't been shaped to fit the space; giant screens bordering the stage have been added so those at the very back of the spacious arena can see what's happening, rather than moving the stage deeper into the audience to better utilise the arena.
Although the screens give a decent view to those who cannot afford the extravagant prices of the closer seats, you have to wonder why a venue not better suited for these types of shows was chosen instead.
The main benefit of Spark is that being in that space with so many people automatically generates that fervent buzz of being at a concert. There is a great atmosphere throughout Lion King, mainly as this is such a unique production that even the hardest cynic will be won over. From the costumes to the puppets to the songs and performers, the hype for The Lion King is real – this rare experience is not something you want to miss out on.
What: The Lion King
Where: Spark Arena until July 18