The impressively epic production, which features over 50 performers working in tandem with a mind-blowing, 232 puppets, is truly something to behold.
The show has enjoyed two previous runs, in 2012, and in 2015…so it’s time to ‘be prepared’ for its ‘roaring’ return, as the Palace theatre once again welcomes audiences to pride rock.
You can real I LOVE MCR’s review by clicking here.
I LOVE MCR caught up with some of the cast the afternoon before opening night of a 19-week run that will be thrilling Manchester audiences right through till 11th March.
Out of all the cast… the significance of performing the show in Manchester holds a special meaning for Francesca Thompson – who plays an ensemble role in the production and is a local performer from Trafford.
“It’s an incredibly special moment (and) it’s very overwhelming coming back here to your home and performing in front of a home crowd”, says Francesca.
“It is a special feeling – a special spark, and a special sort of adrenaline in front of the home crowd…and Manchester has such a lovely warm energy that it brings… and I think we feel that on stage. It’s good to receive that energy, (so) we can give that same energy back”.
For Stephenson Ardern-Sodje, who plays the central role of Simba in the show, it is something of a homecoming. “I used to live in Manchester” explains Stephenson.
“I lived in Manchester for 3 years and it’s been a while since I’ve been here…so it’s been really nice to come back. It feels like coming home. One of the big things – not just about performing” explains Stephenson, “is that I get to see lots of my friends again…so it’s nice to be back”.
The cast comprises a diverse cast of performers from many countries, including South Africa in the case of Nokwanda Khuzwayo, and Thandazile Soni.
When asked if there were any notable performances that inspired them to become a performer, Nokwanda Khuzwayo, who plays opposite Stephenson as Nala had this to say: “When I was younger, I watched a show called Serafina!” (a South African musical depicting students in opposition to apartheid, during the Soweto riots).
“She was a woman; she was strong and fierce, and she stood up for women’s rights – not just women’s rights, but for the whole country”. As it turned out …“the second one was The Lion King, which my sister was part of”, says Nokwanda.
“I said, ‘I want to be Nala when I grow up’…and here I am”.
For Thandazile Soni, who plays Rafiki, the journey to the stage was a little different. “I knew nothing about theatre” insists Thandazile. “Where I come from, theatre isn’t what it is here… so I was part of any street play… whatever we could do to put shows together. No instruments… just us, a cappella”.
On the subject of her big break: “I happened to be rehearsing somewhere”, Thandazile recalls: “when I (had) finally joined one of the big groups at home, and one of the group leaders was like, ‘there are Lion King auditions… just go and check… I think you are what they are looking for’. (So) I went there, I auditioned, and they took me on the spot.
“That is when I was introduced to actual, real theatre. I had no idea what theatre was” says Thandazile.
“I was just a gospel singer from South Africa just enjoying singing what I was singing… and then the day I was taken to go to New York for this show, it was the start of my love for theatre”.
When discussing the impact of the original Lion King, and that ‘Disney magic’… Jean-Luc Guizonne, who plays Mufasa says, “I was a huge fan. I grew up with Disney. I remember crying the first time I saw The Lion King in the cinema” Jean-Luc recalls: “it was the day of my birthday; I was just turning 16 in 1994 and it was the first time I cried watching an animated movie. And I was already deeply into the music; into the fairy-tale of Disney… the magic of Disney.
On his excitement about bringing that magic to the stage: “There is in this musical, the true story of everyone… of each of us…of humanity. Everyone is going to want to stand up in their seats” says Jean- Luc… “it’s really powerful”.
Stephenson believes that it is a “deeply human story about loss, and love, and about community… and (that) now more than ever (that) is something that is relevant”.
Richard Hurst, who plays Mufasa’s envious and traitorous brother, Scar, had this to say about the show: “It is something that an audience will relate to… From a young child watching with his parents as dad (Mufasa) falls to his death; to the comedy of Timon and Pumbaa…and the real soul and spirituality of Rafiki. It is full of heart, joy, love, sadness… and darkness. It doesn’t shy away from that”, says Richard.
It’s there, and present…and it should be. On the talented group of kids that make up a large part of the show: “Most shows that I’ve done with kids”, explains Richard… and they’ve never had this amount of stage time… and story.
“They carry it…it’s a huge responsibility”.
“I would not have been able to do that at 12!” declares Jean-Luc.
Francesca, on what the audience might expect from the stage show: “It’s about involving the audience and making them feel a part of the show as well…and Disney is very good at that. We have moments where some of the cast members are actually in the audience, with the audience”, says Francesca, “and it just makes you feel part of the show”.
On its broad appeal: “It is a whole family event, for all ethnicities, all genders; whoever you’re in love with. You are yourself,” says Francesca “and that is such a beautiful thing… we accept everyone in this theatre”.
“What’s exciting about our show is that even if you think you know it…there are so many more songs in our show”, says Stephenson. The way that they have translated the animation and animals into live- action – into physical human bodies – I think brings something to it.
“So, if you’ve seen the film already, you can come and find something new”, says Stephenson. “And if you haven’t seen the film, there is a whole new experience there for you”.
The Lion King has had its run at the Palace theatre extended until Saturday, March 11th, and tickets for the final 3 weeks are now on sale.