On Stage Extra: After a long wait, The Lion King returns to Philly

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times 

The Lion King

“Rent,” “Les Misérables,” “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera” — many touring Broadway shows make frequent return visits to Philadelphia. The hit musical “The Lion King” is not one of them.

The show made its area debut in 2006 at the Academy of Music and then didn’t come back again until 2010. It returned to the same venue in 2015.

Now, after another wait — eight years this time — “The Lion King” is ready for another triumphant return to the Quaker City.

Disney Theatrical Productions, along with the Kimmel Cultural Campus and The Shubert Organization, celebrates the eagerly awaited return engagement of Disney’s “The Lion King” for a four-week summer engagement at the Academy of Music on the Kimmel Cultural Campus.

The musical, which features music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, opens on August 16 and runs through September 10 at the Academy of Music (Broad and Locust streets, Philadelphia, 215-731-3333, www.kimmelculturalcampus.org), as part of the Kimmel Center’s “Broadway Series.”

“The Lion King” is a stage musical with a book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, with additional music and lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer. It is based on the 1994 Walt Disney Animation Studios’ film of the same name. Directed by Taymor, the musical features actors in animal costumes as well as giant, hollow puppets.

After 25 landmark years on Broadway, “The Lion King” continues its ascent as one of the most popular stage musicals in the world. Since its premiere on November 13, 1997, 27 global productions have been seen by more than 112 million people. Produced under the direction of Thomas Schumacher, “The Lion King” has made theatrical history with six productions worldwide running 15 or more years, with four of those running 20 or more years.

The show, which is set in the jungle somewhere in Africa, tells the story of the lion Simba from his days as a newborn cub through his adult years and is filled with sub-plots and unexpected twists. The hyenas – Shenzi, Banzai and Ed – provide a bit of comic relief.

With “The Lion King”, the animated feature came first and then the Broadway show. The stage production is very similar to the movie. The story and the characters are exactly the same and so is a lot of the dialogue.  The stage version “The Lion King” is known for its elaborate costumes — outfits that transform human actors into jungle animals. It also wins over audiences with its lively, exotic music.

“The Lion King” won six 1998 Tony Awards — Best Musical, Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design, Best Choreography and Best Direction of a Musical.  It has also earned more than 70 major arts awards including the 1998 NY Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and the 1999 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.

One of the key players in the touring show is Gugwana Dlamini, who performs the role of Rafiki, a Sangoma. As the start of the show, Rafiki the mandrill calls the animals to Pride Rock. She greets King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi before presenting their cubs to the gathered animals.

The name given to the traditional healers of many southern African tribes, including the Zulu, is Sangoma. It is a spiritual calling based on a belief in ancestral spirits. A Sangoma is highly respected healer who diagnoses, prescribes, and often performs the rituals to heal a person physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.

The Sangoma may address all of these realms in the healing process, which usually involves divination, herbal medicine, and specific customized rituals to cure illness and restore well-being. The Sangoma performs a holistic and symbolic form of healing by drawing on the beliefs that ancestors in the afterlife guide and protect the living.

“I am familiar with Sangomas and what they do,” said Dlamini, a native of South Africa, during a recent phone interview. “They are familiar to me and my culture.

“Rafiki has real African roots. I realized I had a calling. I believe that I was born to play Rafiki.

“I was born and raised in Durban (South Africa) and moved to Johannesburg in 1988 where I was trained in singing and acting. I moved to London in 1999 and was involved in soundtracks.”

In South Africa, Dlamini trained at Committed Artists Academy. Her theater credits include “Disney’s The Lion King” (London, UK tour, Singapore, North American tour), “Sarafina!,” and “Township Fever; Unity in Diversity” (South Africa). Her television work includes “Generations: The Legacy” (South Africa) and film credits include “Sarafina!”

Her first role was in musical “Sarafina!” when she was 18 years old, just after finishing high school. She also later appeared in the movie version.

Dlamini can be heard on the original Disney movie soundtracks of “The Lion King” and “Dinosaur.” She also appeared in the BBC Radio play “Dear Mr. Lampard,” alongside various South African artists (including Lucky Dube).

“I was fortunate to have performed with Lucky Dube,” said Dlamini.

Dube is a South African reggae musician and Rastafarian. His record sales across the world earned him the Best-Selling African Musician prize at the 1996 World Music Awards. In his lyrics, Dube discussed issues affecting South Africans and Africans in general to a global audience. He recorded 22 albums in a 25-year period and was Africa’s best-selling reggae artist of all time. Dube was murdered in the Johannesburg suburb of Rosettenville in 2007.

“I sang on two of Lucky’s albums – ‘Taxman’ and ‘Trinity,’” said Dlamini. “I also sang with Vusi Mahlasela.

“I was first exposed to ‘The Lion King’ when Lebo M came to South Africa. He contacted me to be a part of the soundtrack for the animated film, and then later asked me to audition for the musical.

Lebohang Morake, known as Lebo M, is a South African producer and composer, known for his songwriting and vocal work on the soundtracks to films such as “The Lion King,” “The Power of One” and “Outbreak” and numerous stage productions.

“I was in the London cast of ‘The Lion King’ starting in 1999,” said Dlamini. “I was offered ensemble and cover for Rafiki. In 2002, I took over the role.

“Rafiki is the weight of the show. With this role, as a singer and an actor, you grow every day.

“That first note when the audience cheers – that first note, here comes the lion. When that note starts, I draw the energy. It’s not just about the singing, it’s about the story. And Rafiki is the heartbeat of the show.”

In this show, Dlamini works hard for the money.

“The running time for the show is two-and-one-half hours,” said Dlamini. “It’s physically challenging. You have to work hard. If you don’t, you won’t survive eight shows. I have big numbers that I have to sing in the show. So, I do vocal exercises every day. Then, during make-up, I prepare myself mentally.”

“The Lion King” has reached a popularity level that is astronomical.

“There are many reasons ‘The Lion King’ is loved by so many people,” said Dlamini. “The music is beautiful with the African band. It touches everyone – children and adults.

“It’s a beautiful story the touches people in many ways. If you’re feeling low, ‘He Lives in You,’ which is sung to Simba, gives you comfort.

“Also, it’s a journey with amazing costumes, sets and lighting. It’s a beautiful story in so many ways.”

Video link for “The Lion King” — https://youtu.be/awqwdi1xakU.

Tickets for “The Lion King” range in price from $29-$189.

African music isn’t the only international music coming to Philly this week. Irish music is also on the way.

Socks in the Frying Pan

On the same night that “The Lion King” opens at the Kimmel Cultural Campus, Socks in the Frying Pan is headlining a show at the City Winery (990 Filbert Street, Philadelphia, www.citywinery.com).

Socks In The Frying Pan is an award-winning trio from County Clare, the universal hub of Irish traditional music. When formed in 2014, this trio featured Aodán Coyne on guitar and vocals, Shane Hayes on accordion and Fiachra Hayes on fiddle & banjo.

Socks In The Frying Pan blends traditional Irish melodies and pitch perfect vocal harmonies with their own personal flair and energetic approach to music.

The trio’s love for live performance and onstage wit has captivated audiences around the world.  They have performed in 46 U.S. states, headlined most of the major Irish music festivals in America, and have toured extensively in Europe.

“Myself and Aodán are the same age,” said Hayes, during a phone interview last week from a tour stop in Chicago.

“We had a mutual friend, so I knew he played guitar.

“There was a local competition, and no-one was available. He was the last one. Now, we’ve been together for 15 years. I’m 36, Aodán is 37 and Fiachra is 32.”

When the band made its debut album, Coyne was still in high school, and the two others were in university. After they made the album, they started playing more gigs.

Their 2015 sophomore release “The Return of the Giant Sock Monsters from Outer Space” continued the rave reviews generated with their 2013 debut, with the Irish American News saying, “This is a great album by three extremely talented young artists. It has been a while since we have enjoyed a new group as much as this.”

In 2016, the band released “Without A Paddle” to coincide with its 2016 U.S. summer/fall tour, which commenced late July and through mid-September and included performances at some of the biggest Celtic and Irish festivals in the U.S. and a number of club shows.

“We had a break for a while,” said Hayes. “I was a high school Math & Sciences teacher. My brother is on a sabbatical – travelling the world just to see it. We don’t know how long he’ll be gone.

“Now we have Ian King, who is a brilliant fiddle player from Chicago. Ian was brought to a session in one of our first tours in America. Ian was with us last year and he’s back again this year.

“We have no recordings with the current three. Our live album is a little over a year old. We’ve made three studio albums and one live album. Our first album was 13 years ago.”

In 2020, they were named “Live Band of the Year” and received “Live Album of the Year” award by the Celtic Music Awards. Their most recent release, “Raw Ríl Live” (Raw & Reel), was recorded in front of a sold-out capacity crowd at Glór theater in their hometown of Ennis.

The band’s influences are more than just Irish trad acts.

“My favorite band is Queen,” said Hayes. “Fiachra’s favorite is Creedence Clearwater Revival and Aodán’s is Steely Dan. We also have traditional favorites like Liz Carroll and Máirtín O’Connor. There are just so many of them around Ennis. It’s the Mecca of Irish music on the River Shannon.

“We don’t have a set date to go back in the studio. We did our last two albums at Sonas Studio in Killarney. We’re about halfway there with songs for an album. It probably wouldn’t take too much to finish it.

“In our live shows on this tour, we do stuff from all the albums and some new material if people want a sneak peek. We do old stuff, new stuff and kinda old stuff.

Video link for Socks in the Frying Pan – https://youtu.be/1uYMhyOX8so

The show at City Winery will start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for the all-ages show are $20 and $30.

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