The Lion King Roars at the Saenger Theatre
Having one of the best openings on Broadway, Disney's The Lion King stunned as it hit the stage this week, opening at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans on Friday October 28. If you are familiar with the popular musical's storyline, you will know that animals can come from just about anywhere, and that is exactly what happened—in the theater. With intricate costumes and detailed movements from the ensemble, this six time Tony Award winning phenomenon is a must see. Its longevity is fitting proof.
Adapted from the 1994 Disney movie of the same name, this show has been number one on Broadway fans' list of shows to see for over two decades. Reinvented as a Broadway musical for the stage in the late 1990s, The Lion King made its debut in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the Orpheum Theatre. With such a successful premier, the show moved on to Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre on October 15, 1997, while officially opening on November 13 that same year.
Standing as Broadway's third longest running show in history, the fan favorite has not only won several awards but has also grossed billions of dollars, making it the highest grossing Broadway musical of all time.
There is know secret to why this show has been so successful. Its precise incorporation of a variety of African cultures in its costumes, puppetry, dynamic music and vocals, and its remarkably emotional performances has created a once in a lifetime immersive experience for audiences across the globe.
The Broadway Show
Opening with "The Circle of Life," the musical adaptation first introduces you to Rafiki (Gugwana Dlamini). Played by a woman in the musical, she begins the story with the oh so familiar opening of the welcoming of newly born Simba. Young Simba (Jaylen Lyndon Hunter) begins his life in the Pride Land getting into all of the things a young cub would likely get into with his best friend young Nala (Scarlett London Diviney).
Similar to the Disney movie, the adaptation stays true to the plot with a few additions. There are a number of new scenes. One key addition is when Timon finds himself nearly drowning in a waterfall while Simba feels powerless to help him. Another major addition is the depiction of Nala's departure in the scene where Scar tries to make her his mate. When she refuses, she decides to depart the Pride Lands to find help after receiving the blessings of the lionesses and Rafiki during the new song "Shadowland".
At the Saenger Theatre New Orleans
The show amazed with comical relief, yet touching with incredible aesthetics. Some favorites from the night's show were Timon's sarcasm, the hilarious hyena's, an amazing performance from young Simba, and the beautiful dialects and vocals of Rafiki and all of the ensemble singers and dancers. This show was nothing other than incredible and is most certainly a must see production.
If you haven't seen Disney's The Lion King yet, it is currently in an limited run with performances at the Saenger Theatre through November 13 (except Mondays).
Missing Pretty Woman is a big mistake, big...HUGE!
Staging a Broadway musical based on a movie is difficult enough, but to attempt to bring a beloved iconic film to stage is bound to be met with criticism—fair and unfair—from all sides. This production of Pretty Woman is no exception. Fans of the film will discover their storyline faithfully intact, which is no surprise considering the book was written by J. F. Lawton and the late Gary Marshall, both who wrote the film version. Theatre goers will be treated to a bevy of original songs created and performed by Broadway stars rarely seen in touring companies.
For those unfamiliar with the 1980s Gary Marshall film (his most successful movie—and he made a lot of movies), this romantic rags-to-riches tale is loosely based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, a la My Lair Lady. In this reincarnation, a wealthy lonely and (literally) lost entrepreneur Edward Lewis (Adam Pascale) meets up with a fledgling hooker Vivian Ward (Olivia Valli) who negotiates at a level he respects and also knows the way to his hotel. Sparks fly immediately.
In need of a companion for social situations, but wary of distractions and unwanted entanglements, Edward compensates Vivian for her time the rest of the week. His goal is to focus on closing a multi-million dollar deal while in Los Angeles. Her's is paying the rent. To define the business arrangement, no kissing is allowed. Fans of the movie, or Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, or romantic comedies in general, all know how this turns out. HINT: They wind up kissing...and then some.
The cast is strong. Olivia Valli's voice sounds a lot like Julia Roberts, but she's also got the chops to belt out a song, impressing with "Anywhere But Here" as she takes the stage.
Kyle Taylor Parker does triple duty as the defacto "Happy Man" to frame the narrative, also stepping into Héctor Elizondo's shoes as non-judgmental hotel manager Barnard Thompson, and as the flamboyant boutique manager who excels at sucking up to rich customers. Not only is his performances remarkably different for each characterization, but by having them all played by Parker, it subtly reveals how each character is a moral compass in their own way.
Adam Pascale is Broadway royalty, and having him join this cast as Edward is exciting and complements the talent around him. Pascale originated the role of "Roger Davis" in Rent. While it takes a few scenes to reconcile his famous anti-establishment stage persona now morphing into a one-percenter, his voice is every bit as strong and rich as it was in the 1980s...when this show is supposed to take place. There is a comfort in seeing "Vivian" as Pascale's new "Mimi"—it feels like Roger's in there somewhere. And this actually makes his transition to emotionless business tycoon into passionate dreamer, due to Vivian's influence, even more believable. Experiencing Pascale's performance and voice live is worth the price of admission.
The scene-stealing standout, however, is Trent Soyster as Giulio, the hotel bellhop. The bellhop was relegated to amusing reactions shots in the movie version, but Soyster almost completely steals the show with comedic agility and timing. Between learning to dance with the hotel manager and getting absorbed into the excitement of the lavish lifestyle Vivian and her friend Kit (Jessica Crouch) are experiencing, his performance is laughable in every good way imaginable.
Appropriate to the decade the play is set, 1980's rock icon Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance infused 16 original songs to solidify Pretty Woman as a musical. The era is best represented with Pascale's rendition of "Freedom."
But don't think you're escaping Roy Orbison's signature song that inspired the story, no matter how many times they tease it.
Pretty Woman is being performed at the Saenger Theatre through Sunday October 9.
The Hit Broadway Musical Hamilton has Extended Run in New Orleans
History has its eyes on The Saenger Theatre as audiences have an opportunity to experience the extended run of the Broadway sensation Hamilton well past Independence Day, so "don't throw away your shot" and go!
Experience it Live
The first and most obvious question: Why see the Broadway production of Hamilton in New Orleans?
Given Hamilton's over-the-top popularity since the curtain rose on Lin-Manuel Miranda's multi-ethnic update of one of the least iconic—yet one of the most influential—founding fathers in New York City August 6, 2015, the Broadway musical became an instant classic. The show's soundtrack is know by heart to millions of adoring fans (and historians), beyond the fact that the entire Broadway production, with the original cast, was watched countless times after Disney+ began streaming it during a time when it was impossible for a Broadway-starved fan base to go the theatre. So is there a compelling reason to see it (again)?
The answer would be a resounding : Yea!
Regardless of the excellent production values in Disney+'s streaming version, or how many times the soundtrack is heard, the answer is obvious from the first drumbeats as the house lights dim, and Aaron Burr (Josh Tower) strides onto center stage, Hamilton needs to be experienced the way Miranda created it—as a live Broadway production.
No overture or sweeping orchestration leads into the show, but the energy and intensity is palatable as he is joined by the entire cast, literally filling the austere set to the rafters. The roar from the audience anticipating the opening lines set a thrilling stage.
Hamilton is a collectively shared experience in which the audience and cast are galvanized with the energy from each other. They've created an energy that only seemingly exists in live theatre, and cannot be emulated on film or TV. Beyond that, there are so many nuanced performances and activities in the background or out of focal sight, that much may be missed if it's not in the sight lines. However, for theatre-goers, these hidden elements add to the audience's enjoyment, and sometimes characters' reaction.
A Rap Musical it is Not
It is important to note, some patrons of Broadway musicals may be misled by Hamilton being unfairly categorized as a "Rap Musical." They may believe this format is too big of a departure from the traditional shows, but have no fear.
That classification and subsequent avoidance would be wrong. While there are songs that are performed as rap, including two inspired Battle Raps in the form of cabinet meetings emceed by President Washington (Paul Oakly Stovall)—pitting Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton "debating" Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (an uninhibited David Park), Miranda's musical is a love letter to all genres of music.
The show opens with a Colonial-era minuet, and spinkles Blues, Motown, torchlight ballads, upbeat love songs, and soulful seduction songs that would make Barry White blush. Miranda is successful in his goal of having his show be accessible to new audiences without undermining his clear love of all Broadway music. In making all the musical forms accessible and enjoyable to both the new and traditional audiences, he grows the fanbase in the process.
The Play is Hamilton's History
Historians and those with a subscription to Disney + may not find spoiler alerts here, but all else be warned: Hamilton charts the unpredictable life of Alexander Hamilton from poverty-stricken orphan in the Caribbean to his role as one of the most significant United States founding fathers, who effectively created the country's system of government and finance we know today.
Hamilton, Act I
The opening number quickly dispenses with his childhood in song and introduces the cast of characters, picking the story up as a recent college graduate meeting frienemy Aaron Burr for the first time shortly before the American revolution.
Along the way they befriend John Laurens (Jon Viktor Corpuz), Herculese Mulligan (Tyler Belo), and [New Orleans favorite] Marquis de Lafayette (David Park). Proud tomcatting ladies' men, the friends court the Schuyler sisters: Angelica (Stephanie Umoh), Peggy (Yana Perrault), and Eliza (Zoe Jensen) who Hamilton married.
Historians have largely rejected the idea that Hamilton had a love triangle between his wife Eliza and his sister-in-law Angelica, but the devotion and friendship among the three is also widely accepted and keeps speculation alive. Miranda runs with this idea and creates plausible situations between the trio that may explain many of the historical writings from which the dialogue is sourced. Angelica's wedding flashback on how they all meet ("Satisfied") is a brilliant stage moment imagined by choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.
Burr and Hamilton's paths criss-cross through the revolution, Hamilton always seeming one-step ahead of Burr, including becoming right-hand man to General George Washington (Paul Oakley Stovall).
Hamilton, Act II
After the victory over the British empire comes internal nation building in Act II. Unfortunately, it is also the turning point in Hamilton's life, in reality and on stage.
While his fame was a meteoric rise in wartime full of love, loyalty, and achievement, he becomes his own worst enemy in peacetime, ultimately being undone by five of the deadly sins.
Hamilton has more radical ideas than his peacetime counterparts care for. Thus the two-party political system is born. It is quickly clear nothing has changed over the centuries.
The north and south are in the early stages of political divides based on slavery, and states' rights compete with the values in a strong central government, especially financially. And of course, rival political parties never miss gloating over salacious scandals in media coverage that brings down worrisome opponents. A significant difference is that in the end, the good of the country and its people are the priority despite political rivalries—much to the disbelief and anger of Aaron Burr.
Even though Burr repeatedly acknowledges that Hamilton works tirelessly and persistently pursues his goals, Burr is increasingly resentful. He is bitter that his non-committal political strategy is not advancing his career as fast as Hamilton increases over the course of their lives.
The Burr-Hamilton relationship is optimistic but contentious and ultimately fragile from the start.
This is an interesting dynamic that is reminiscent of the Salieri-Mozart relationship in Amadeus. Whether Miranda purposefully structured his plot line similarly with Peter Shaffer's other historical rivalry, or it is simply a theatrical coincidence, the narrative framework works well.
Like Amadeus, the story arc seems to follow the title character's career (Hamilton), but it is deceptively the antagonist's story (Burr), and how their intertwined yet parallel relationship comes to a tragic end—but who pays the bigger price?
Hamilton on Tour in New Orleans
Even if the show was seen on Broadway, this touring cast of Broadway veterans makes it new. They exude the passion necessary for a play that is as historically sound and painful as it is funny and soulful.
Alexander Hamilton (played by understudy Deejay Young, normally cast as Edred Utomi) had a more melodic voice than Miranda who originated the role. Young made Hamilton's strong convictions believable, making emotions real and conveying Hamilton's desperation, frustration, and futility convincingly. His balanced performance brought the egocentric aspects of Hamilton to life even as he displays loyalty, love, and repentance in his evolution as a person. In a pinch, understudy Young is also poised to step in as Lafayette & Jefferson, Mulligan & Madison, as well as Laurens & Phillip Hamilton, and would probably be mesmerizing in any of those roles.
Other standouts are Park's Marquis de Lafayette (in Act I) and Thomas Jefferson (in Act II), Stovall's George Washington, and Yana Perrault as Peggy Schuyler (in Act I) and Maria Reynolds (in Act II).
Without imitating the animated performance of Daveed Diggs who originated the role, Park brings a fresh take and an equally energetic spin on these roles, especially Jefferson's return to America ("What'd I Miss").
Likewise, Stovall adds some soothing Luther Vandross-style cool with his parting words as Washington resigns his presidency (a soulful rendition of "One Last Time") that had many in tears.
Perrault purposefully taking the background as Peggy in Act I lustfully devours the stage (and Alexander Hamilton) as Maria Reynolds in Act II. The statuesque actor who somehow managed to look plain as Peggy, emerges with a shaved head that intensifies her as an appropriately sexy seductress. Then she opens her mouth, and an unexpectedly sultry voice laments with such desperate loneliness, Hamilton's plea for divine intervention ("Say No to This")—and ultimate failure in receiving any—is understandable.
And, of course, it is impossible to not note Peter Matthew Smith's hilarious turn as King George, who gets the first laugh before the proverbial curtain has even opened, and the most enthusiastic greeting of any character—which he royally relished. Smith's alternating sneering contempt and maniacal glee is the perfect comic relief popping up at unexpected times throughout the show.
The New Broadway Musical Theatre
Every generation has a Broadway sensation that is seemingly a complete departure from traditional formats, redefining Broadway musicals as accepted, yet is widley embraced by the audiences coming of age but disconnected to their "parents' Broadway."
Like Hamilton in the 2010s, Bob Fosse productions like Chicago and the revelatory A Chorus Line turned Broadway shows on their heads when introduced in the 1970s, as did Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats and Phantom of the Opera in the 1980s, Rent in the 1990s, and The Lion King in the 2000s—all challenging the conventional norms of The Great White Way.
And here's where Miranda truly excels in his vision.
By throwing open the theatre doors for younger audiences of color, Lin-Manuel Miranda has made American history at once fun, interesting and relatable. His personal fascination with history and Alexander Hamilton who fundamentally altered the world through his ability to effectively communicate and basically never take no for an answer, was perfect material, especially connecting with Hamilton's own immigrant experience.
A polarizing political figure in his day, Miranda's play neither judges nor forgives Hamilton's personal indiscretions, but is also careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Miranda's show chooses to celebrate Hamilton's accomplishments (Revolutionary war hero, founder of the New York Post newspaper and U.S. Coast Guard, creator of the federal banking system and Washinton, D.C. as the nation's capitol, defender of the Constitution, and much more) and applaud his life's work. Despite the shortcomings of this personally flawed human being ("Finale/Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story"), the play reinforces the importance of what he achieved and why it all still matters—as bold a concept in the seventeenth century as it is in present day, which may be why Hamilton resonates with so many.
Hamilton is performing an extended run at the Saenger Theatre, 1111 Canal Street. Tickets are on sale at The Saegner box office, BroadwayInNewOrleans.com, and through Ticketmaster. Orders for groups of 10 or more may be placed by calling (504) 287-0372.
Producer Jeffrey Seller and Hancock Whitney Broadway In New Orleans present Hamilton at The Saenger Theatre, 1111 Canal St., New Orleans, LA, 70112 for an extended run through July 10, 2022.