‘The Lion King’ transports and transfixes in SF

Since its premiere in 1994, there has been one sound that retains the power to both excite and empower. It’s a piercing, raw and wholly bewitching chant that can stir even the most ornery of curmudgeons out of their embittered stupor. Out of silence, the words come thundering in: “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba.” The sun rises and we all know what this is. It’s “The Lion King.”

For almost 20 years now, these words and the song they so valiantly introduce have etched themselves into the minds of a generation. The names and stories of Simba, Mufasa, Nala, Scar, Rafiki, Timon and Pumbaa have all become so familiar to audiences, it would be redundant to rehash the details here. They are icons. But, more significant than that, they are enduring icons.

In 2011, the 3D conversion of “The Lion King” film earned near $90 million in ticket sales despite its limited run. The release of “The Lion King” on Blu-ray topped the sales charts over popular summer blockbusters. And, as a personal aside, my sister and I are wearing and holding nothing but “Lion King” merchandise in four out of the five photos that adorn our parents’ living room. Suffice it to say, “The Lion King” is not just a story. It is an institution.

The same goes for the musical. In April 2012, the show, which began 15 years ago, officially became the highest-grossing Broadway show of all time — displacing Andrew Lloyd Weber’s long-standing behemoth, “The Phantom of the Opera.” And, when I walked into San Francisco’s SHN Orpheum Theatre to see their current production, the actors, music and audience proved what I’ve been trying to say this whole time: Everybody loves “The Lion King.”

It’s not surprising why. From the moment South African native Buyi Zama unleashes the powerful opening of “Circle of Life” to the elegant and towering puppets of giraffes, gazelles and elephants propelled by people to the sardonic and sinister smile of Derek Smith’s Scar, this production embodies the touching and technical excellence that makes any musical — not just “The Lion King” — exemplary.

When I asked Syndee Winters, who plays adult Nala, just what makes this show so special, the answer was easy. “For me, it’s the grandeur of it all,” she said. “This musical is the only one of its kind and whatever attracts me to it is the music.” With the added ambience of the orchestra, animatingly conducted by Rick Snyder, the music, and the actors and dancers who perform it, are what stands out. Dionne Randolph’s magisterial Mufasa exudes a simultaneous sense of god-like wisdom and frail pathos when he sings “They Live in You” to Simba under the stars. Winters and her co-star Jelani Remy (adult Simba) compel the audience (to tears in the case of my friend) with their soft rendition of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

Words feel unnecessary in the company of songs and performances like these. Amidst the vivid colors of the costumes, puppets, backdrops and moveable set pieces, the actors in this production not only engage audience members with their command of song and stage, they transport them.

“The show’s been going for 15 years, so you want to make sure the message is always fresh,” said Winters. “The greatest thing we can do is be present and in the moment and tell the story the way it is supposed to be told; It’s a simple story on a grand scale.” Winters is right. “The Lion King” is universal in its message and, especially on stage, monumental in scope. The impressive set and elaborate head masks speak to that creative vision. But, what makes “The Lion King” so transcendent is, as Winters says, its ability to hold you, transfixed, in moments of pure joy, sadness, or triumph. This production is a testament to why “The Lion King” story, film and musical still live in us. It is timeless.

Contact Jessica Pena at [email protected]

If interested, you can follow Syndee Winters on Twitter @syndeewinters