The historical cannon shot at 9:00 p.m. announced from the Fortress of San Carlos de La Cabaña that it was time to start. The amphitheater of Habana Vieja’s historical center was lit and the animals took possession of it.
I am not using metaphors nor was this a show of the national zoo. Since the last days of July 2012, the theater company that performs in this space of the city has been presenting El Rey León (The Lion King), directed by maestro Alfonso Menéndez and inspired in the Broadway classic.
Premiered in 1994 with music by English composer and interpreter Elton John, the well-known plot of The Lion King by the Walt Disney producers was staged three years later as a musical and had its premiere at the Orpheum Theatre of Minnesota.
The original play opened in Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theatre on October 15, 1997 on preview, with official inauguration on November 13 of that year. Today it is the seventh most performed show in the history of Broadway. In April 2012 it became the most successful box-office draw of all times in the world’s most famous and important theater circuit, having won 853.8 million dollars.
The Cuban version conceived by Menéndez presents an African scene on the stage with lions and lionesses, seagulls, hyenas, peasants, zebras, giraffes and elephants. It also combines with a correct musical production where the well-known themes from Disney’s animated version that earned Sir Elton John an Oscar are interpreted as dramatic script of the story, together with other songs that complement the plot.
The story is practically the same one. It focuses on Simba, only son of queen Sarabi and Mufasa, king of the prairie and chief of the Royal Rock. Skar, Mufasa’s brother, kills him and usurps his throne, blaming his young nephew of His Majesty’s death. Simba flees and is educated by two amusing and unique characters: Timon and Pumba. Coincidentally, when the young lion has grown up with amazing resemblance to his father, he meets his childhood friend Nala, to whom he is now united by something more than friendship. Together they return to the Royal Rock and make justice. Skar, on the other hand, is devoured by hyenas when they discover the lion’s betrayal.
The dances have been well selected to grant brilliance to this piece, be it the contemporary Cuban folkloric dances that are so close to our roots or rock’n roll, all with carefully studied theatrical mounting that balances drama and comedy to maintain the interest of all types of public.
Well-known musical themes like Hakuna Matata, El siglo sin fin, Él vive en tí, among others, join the dance to give evidence of the vitality of this forgotten genre of the Cuban stage, and allow the almost 40 actors and actresses who participated – mostly non-professional – to develop their talents.
Musicals are costly theater productions, and this explains the lack of adequate decoration to simulate the prairie. This however found compensation in a correct and spectacular wardrobe that contributed to the good performance on the scene, regardless of the short experience of some of the actors and actresses.
According to Alfonso Menéndez, one of the few theater directors who produce musicals in the Island, in an interview with Habana Radio: “Staging The Lion King has been a very compromising and ambitious enterprise, not only because of the production, to be discovered by the pubic, but also for the music, the choruses and the soloist interpretations, since Elton John added twelve themes to the original ones that appear in the film that are true musical jewels.”
The Lion King adds to the long list of musicals premiered in the Amphitheater during the last seventeen years. The Phantom of the Opera, Las Leandras, The Merry Widow, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Beauty and the Beast and Cats are only a few of the adaptations made by Menéndez to keep musicals alive in our country’s stages.