REVIEW: The Lion King, Sunderland Empire, until November 1

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WHAT do you get when you fuse a Noah’s Ark of 700 elaborate animal costumes with a heart-warming tale and soaring vocals? The majestic spectacle of The Lion King.

Be transported from Wearside to the wilds of Africa as the biggest show ever to hit the Empire takes over the venue for a mammoth seven-week run.

An elephant in the aisles, birds flittering above the stalls, percussionists drumming from the side galleries, this production bursts from the stage to immerse you fully in a world of magnificent beasts.

This week the musical was crowned globally as the biggest box office earner in history - and it’s easy to see why.

No expense has been spared in breathing life into the 1994 film of the same name and drawing you into a world where bumbling warthogs jig to Riverdance, a Machiavellian lion orchestrates the death of his brother in a stampede and a shaman baboon foresees the future.

At the core of this Hamlet-esque tale is Simba who, though still lovable in his younger years, has more grit than his Disney counterpart.

Indeed, this is a more avant-garde staging than the cutesy animation of Disney. Leotard-clad dancers become human blades of grass, graceful lionesses cry tears of streaming silk, giraffes walk on stilts and baddie of the piece, Scar, has a costume that resembles that of an evil Samuri warrior.

Special mention must go to the lighting too which drenches the Empire stage with rich savanna hues and makes it pulsate with vibrancy.

Casualty and Law and Order actor Christopher Colquhoun commands the stage as the deliciously devious Scar who, due to his lack of physical strength, relies on his cunning and his henchmen hyenas to become king of the jungle and force our hero into exile.

It’s on the outskirts of the pride lands that Simba, played with great, leaping physical presence by Hope Maine, meets Timba (Dominic Brewer) and Pumbaa (Lee Ormsby) who provide the lion’s share of the show’s comedy.

Their pairing is a joy to watch and a feat of comic timing considering the actors have to deal with manipulating their puppets and costumes, as well as their own performance.

Though the high drama will appeal to adults, numbers such as the toe-tapping anthem Hakuna Matata, performed with gusto by Timba and Pumbaa, delight younger theatre-goers.

For this isn’t just a visual feast, it’s an aural treat too - you’d expect nothing less with Elton John and Tim Rice at the musical helm.

Can You Feel The Love Tonight and Circle of Life are the stand out musical numbers, but the traditional African drumming and song which runs through the piece also enchants. Though the upbeat pop may be at odds with the earthy African arrangements, it all manages to thread together superbly.

It was a great coup for the Empire to announce that they would stage this touring production’s North East debut and the result is one in which they can certainly take pride.