If there’s one song I’ve been singing for the longest time without knowing the lyrics, it has to be The Lion King‘s “Circle of Life.” I’m sure I’m not alone in this—although the English lyrics are easy to understand, there’s that African chant that perfectly sets the mood for this iconic Disney musical yet leaves plenty of space for, ahem, improvisation.
The Lion King is part of my childhood soundtrack, and its stage adaptation has long been on my list of must-see Broadway musicals. So when I heard that Manila would be their first stop in this year’s international tour, there was no way I could miss it. Luckily, I didn’t just get to see the show, I was also invited to an exclusive lunch with Calvyn Grandling and Noxolo Dlamini, otherwise known as Simba and Nala.
A Date with Calvyn and Noxolo
Held at the Solaire Resort and Casino, the Cast Lunch was an intimate affair with some of Globe Live’s customers, ambassadors, and media friends. Calvyn and Noxolo (apparently called Noxy for short) welcomed us with a sweet rendition of the classic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Then it was time to chow down on grub that was significantly more substantial than Simba, Timon, and Pumba’s usual fare.
Once we had filled our bellies, we settled down for a Q&A with the King and Queen of Pride Rock. Here are a few snippets from that session:
How do you prepare to portray Nala?
Noxy: When you walk into the room, you really have to channel your inner lioness and what you think a lion would be… A lot of our movement comes from the Javanese. It’s not on all fours. It’s just remembering the stature of a lion and exuding it.
What do you think of the Philippines and your Filipino cast members?
Calvyn: I personally love the culture over here. I think you’re setting a big standard for the world where we are gonna go, and I just feel like [it’s] the best place for us to start this tour off. It’s about culture and this warmth from the people. People is everything. Food is everything. Not traffic, but all else I really love. Our little Simbas and little Nalas are Filipino, and their smiles and their love and their talent is incredible.
Is there a difference in the production of the Lion King in the Philippines?
Noxy: What’s special about the performance that Filipinos are getting is the authentic sound of the African. There’s a lot of South Africans in the cast. Majority of the performers are actually South Africans so it’s a really beautiful sound… It’ll definitely be a different sound. If you watched it in New York, this is definitely more African.
What advice would you give aspiring theater performers?
Calvyn: Keep believing in yourself ’cause a lot of people will tell you what they think of you. Your directors and everybody around you would give you a picture of you that they want you to be. But know who you are… Keep reminding yourself of those five things that you love about yourself, and those will be the things that become your inner song that keeps repeating in your mind whenever they say you’re not the person that they want for this job. Then you’ll be fine with it because you know who you are. And keep working at it… Preparation is key. Our bodies are our business so we have to look after ourselves.
Noxy: If you can’t breathe without it, then you know it’s the one that you have to do. This industry is not easy because as we know there is a lot of rejection, but you need to bounce back, and you need to remember why you started to begin with. Remember how it feels like to not do it so you make sure that you do do it. And always work hard at it. You can’t always just focus on one part of your talent, but you need to make sure that you’re able to acquire other skills, like singing and dancing and acting and this and that. Make sure that you’re proactive in what you do… Just make sure that you’re open-minded, and open up your heart and your mind to learning experiences. Just always go for it. It’s not easy but you do what you gotta do.
He Said, She Said: A Review of The Lion King
For a change, I thought I’d invite my regular theater companion of late to share his thoughts on The Lion King from a guy’s point-of-view. We often have clashing opinions, but we pretty much agreed on this one. Read on for a his-and-her review of The Lion King in Manila.
They said that The Lion King has one of the best opening acts of all musicals with “Circle of Life,” and I couldn’t agree more. Seeing all of those costumes while the drums were beating was quite a treat, and I could feel my adult self time traveling back in time when I first watched the animated movie as a kid. That’s how good the production is. That also sets the bar in a way similar to how a child views his dad as Superman. You want the performers to give you that sense of wonder and joy you had as a kid, which in truth might not be really fair. I felt like I expected my Simba to really be that petulant lion pup who grows to be a hesitant but mighty king or my Mufasa to be that commanding figure with that deep James Earl Jones voice to make me want to listen (tough shoes to fill, I know) every time he speaks or sings. Unfortunately, they didn’t live up to my expectations. I can say though, the musical made me love Timon and Pumbaa more and made me despise Scar just a little bit further but also form a grudging respect for him.
But I left the theatre feeling like a child again, and wishing I could just stay with Timon and Pumbaa and “Hakuna Matata” life away.
More than its popularity and awards, it was the nostalgia that made The Lion King such a must-see for me. It had been part of my childhood, and the music alone could take me back to the time I watched it on VHS.
The press called it a visual spectacle, and it was easy to see why. The entire production exuded creativity. The animal costumes integrate with the human body so well and create the atmosphere of an animal kingdom on stage. Throw in sets which glide and lower onto the stage with precision and lighting that paints each scene with emotions, and you’ve got a delight for the eyes. As the cast of various animals appeared for the “Circle of Life,” I couldn’t help but smile and feel like a kid again, with my eyes darting from one side of the stage to another.
We intentionally didn’t listen to the Broadway soundtrack before watching, so while we knew the songs from the movie, there were new ones too. Even the familiar ones had a more mature sound with clear African influence. Unfortunately, none of the new songs really stuck with me, save for “He Lives in You,” which Rafiki sings to the adult Simba.
One of the problems with having an attachment to the original film is that I had expectations regarding how the characters would sound. While most of the cast did a good job bringing their characters to life, I felt that our Simba (played by Calvyn’s alternate, Felipe Flores) and Mufasa (Mothokozisi Emkay Khanyile) lacked the vocal power I wanted to hear from the king of the Pride Lands. Noxy had a more mature yet undeniably feline approach to Nala, and Antony Lawrence portrayed a cunning yet mesmerizing Scar. My favorites have to be Pierre van Heerden and Jamie McGregor, who really nailed the comedic duo Pumbaa and Timon, and André Jewson’s masterful miming of Zazu. I also have to mention Ntsepa Pitjeng, who entertained as the stick-wielding Rafiki.
The Lion King‘s theme of finding your place in the world resonates still—even more now than it did when I was younger. It’s easier to sympathize not only with Simba’s self-doubt, but also his struggle between enjoying a life of no worries (“Hakuna Matata!”) and taking on the responsibilities of the King. Adulting, as we like to say now.
Overall, The Lion King is indeed a spectacle and a glorious celebration of creativity. I’d recommend it to Disney fans and to anyone who just wants to enjoy a feel-good, world-class show.
Catch The Lion King at the Theatre at Solaire until May 20, 2018. Tickets available at Ticketworld!