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Disneyland Paris' The Legend of the Lion King
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There is something about Disney's the Lion King that appears to stimulate the creative talents at the Company. Ten years ago, a lion cub called Simba reinvigorated the traditional animation process and breathed life into the concept of synergy. Personally, the movie remains a flawless favourite ever since I first saw it at AMC Pleasure Island in the summer of 1994 (three times).
Coincidentally, the theme park product that was spawned from this success has stimulated a similar response. From the lighthearted puppetry of Legend of the Lion King, formerly in Fantasyland, Magic Kingdom to the finest Disney theme park parade in recent memory, Celebration of the Lion King at Disneyland to the reincarnation of the parade as Festival of the Lion King by Disney's Animal Kingdom's entertainment gurus, Reed Morgan Jones and Dan Stamper, the savannah animals have captivated audiences for over a decade. Therefore, it was no great surprise that Disneyland Resort Paris opted to join the bandwagon, albeit later than its brethern.
This summer, the park debuted its first permanent production in the Videopolis Theatre (Discoveryland) since the finale of the Mulan show prior to the tenth birthday celebrations. The installation of Anne Hamburger at Disney Creative Entertainment has heralded the arrival of the Broadway-style shows with larger-than-life production values and a budget to match. Greenlighting Disney's Aladdin for the Hyperion Theater at Disney's California Adventure park, Disney's Snow White for the Fantasyland Theater in Disneyland and the Golden Mickeys aboard the Disney Cruise Line has been a remarkable change in company policy, gambling on 5 year runs and attempting to bring a decidedly more adult crowd to the Disney arena. Many have questioned the validity and appropriateness of this policy, but Ms Hamburger has been given a free rein to reinvigorate the format for Disney guests. Disneyland Resort Paris' original park has suffered from a lack of original productions, relying instead on firm, but aging shows such as Tarzan and the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Friends.
For this new production, Francois Leroux, Katy Harris and their team at Disneyland Resort Paris turned to a tried and tested formula as their foundation. The basis of the musical direction is firmly embedded in the original values of Dan Stamper and Gordon Goodwin, musical director and arranger respectively for the Festival of the Lion King. Working closely with this pair, Disneyland Resort Paris' resident composer and producer, Vasile Sirli opted for a similar style, evoking the power, presence and emotion of the original movie soundtrack. However, this Legend opens with Mark Mancina's score, heralds the arrival of Rafiki, slamming giant tom-tom drums with increasing rapidity prior to the crescendo chanting of Lebo M and the Circle of Life. As the performers take to the stage, the Circle of Life gives way to the South African composer's Welcome to Our World, a wonderfully enchanting opening scene, more reminiscent of Lebo's Rhythm of the Pridelands. Gone are the four travellers, Kiume, Kibibi, Nakawa and Zawadi from the Disney's Animal Kingdom version.
The storyline of this production is the story of Simba, which is to be presented to him in the form of song and performance dancing, as a celebration of his trials & tribulations on the journey to becoming king. Rafiki, Nala, Scar and Simba are performed by human cast members, but Timon, Pumbaa and Zazu retain their animal forms either as characters or puppets. Simba and Pumbaa hold court over the proceedings from the comfort of royal boxes on either side of the stage. These puppets are recreations seen in other parades and shows. Each scene unfolds with one of Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice's songs, along similar lines to its Floridian counterpart, complete with aerial acrobats for the love song. However, there are numerous additions that do bring a smile to the face. Zazu is a complex puppet, whose aerial arrival is particularly enjoyable, as he glides across the stage to his perch. Pumbaa disappears from his box seat at one point to be seen swinging from a vine during the Hakuna Matata sequence. The special effects are also a treat, with a wall of water falling across the middle of the stage being used to break scenes and as a projection screen. In the Be Prepared number Scar is ably assisted by his goose-stepping hyenas and truly dramatic scenery with illuminated red seams appearing in the rockwork and mist rolling across the platform. Unusually, Be Prepared is reprised as the climax of the show as Scar and Simba battle for supremacy of the Pridelands. The choreography is excellent, adding punch to the story and vitality to this production, which is more reminiscent of the Broadway version than that operating daily in Disney's Animal Kingdom.
Many of the opening cast have appeared in Disney's the Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre in London, and the quality of the vocals are unlike anything I have ever heard in a Disney theme park. Nala and Scar are two stand-out highlights with their stunning range and the emotion conveyed in their performances. Rafiki is a pure joy as the shaman monkey. The Circle of Life has always elicited uncontrollable emotions in me, and Rafiki's soaring warbling, particularly in the reprise at the end was simply breath-taking, as the entire cast energetically spiral across the arena. The amended conclusion to this showstopper reaches new highs. The performance concludes with the Celebration Finale that is the mainstay of Festival of the Lion King. Each number is reprised in brief, giving each character an opportunity to leave an indelible vocal mark with the audience.
The Legend of the Lion King is undoubtedly the strongest and most professional production ever staged at the park. The quality of the creative entertainment has taken a giant leap this year with the success of the Lion King Carnival earlier this Spring on Main Street U.S.A. The creative influence of Annie Hamburger can certainly be felt in 2004 in Marne-la-Vallee. The staging is highly inventive for a relatively small space that lacks the grandeur of the Hyperion Theater at Disney's California Adventure but more than compensates with the close intimate proximity. Vasile Sirli has opted for a more theatrical feel to the soundtrack than the cinematic version evident in Festival of the Lion King. The costumes are similar to the puppetry of the Broadway version, whilst maintaining individuality and allowing increased flexibility for dancing. The influences are self-evident, but the Parisian production retains its own look and spectacle. The theatre has been modified, highlighting the entrance to the property with traditional marquees and curious animal statues littering the viewing area, all motionless, waiting for the curtain to rise.
The show has been a roaring success, with crowds waiting two hours for a prime spot in the small seating area, despite numerous daily performances in both English and French. In addition, a purpose-built merchandise cart has been positioned at the theatre entrance, hawking show-specific items such as tees, mugs and mousemats for the first time in the park's history. The show itself is highly entertaining, even for guests who have experienced the in-the-round sensation of Festival of the Lion King. The soundtrack is superior to Ted Rickett's interpretation of Festival of the Lion King with crisp orchestral recordings and flawless vocal performances. The CD also features new interpretations of the signature numbers from the movie by Vasile Sirle.
The CD is currently available from the LaughingPlaceStore.com. One can only hope that future productions for the Castle Forecourt Stage and the Chapparal Theatre will be equally as electric and captivating.
Lindsay and I are shortly to embark on an Haunted Mansion Holiday-themed vacation. Watch for future articles about the Halloween offerings in Anaheim, Tokyo and Paris and a comparison between Disneyland's established Haunted Mansion Holiday and the new upstart, Tokyo Disneyland's Haunted Mansion Holiday Nightmare. Jack is back...