What to expect from The Lion King as it prepares to roar back to Sunderland Empire

The most majestic of musicals is set to be the ‘mane’ attraction when it roars back to Sunderland next spring.

At its North East debut back in 2014, Disney’s The Lion King became the best-selling show ever to run at Sunderland Empire, enthralling and entertaining thousands of theatre-goers.

Its return in March 2023, which we announced earlier this week, is set to follow suit with huge anticipation for the seven-week run.

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Taking our seats at the home of the UK production of the global smash for more than 23 years, The Lyceum Theatre, it’s not hard to see why it’s London’s best-selling musical, too.

Disney's The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre, London. Credit: Johan Persson

And those seeing this spectacular when it returns to Wearside can look forward to the full West End experience.

Aside from Pride Rock appearing from the side of the stage instead of beneath as in London, the touring production is as close to the West End as you can get without actually going to the Big Smoke.

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It takes a village to create this mammoth spectacular each night, 150 people to be precise, with 50 bringing the story to life on stage with 232 puppets and 100 people more creating the magic backstage.

The result is a masterclass in the art of musicals: a stage drenched in the distinctive burnt orange hues of The Serengeti, beautiful costumes that bring to life the beloved cartoon characters of the film in spectacular detail and a score that’s punctuated with classics such as Can You Feel The Love Tonight? and Hakuna Matata alongside tracks written specifically for the show which honour the distinctive sounds and rhythms of Africa.

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Nokwanda Khuzwayo as Nala in Disney's The Lion King UK & Ireland tour

The film is one of the most cherished of all the mega brand’s films, but the musical, which was brought to the stage by director Julie Taymor in 1997, adds a whole new dimension to Simba’s journey of discovery.

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Take for instance the stampede scene, one of the most moving in the film, which leads to the death of Mufasa. Hard to imagine how they could recreate the thundering herd of wildebeest with the limitations of a stage, but it’s executed with such skill and aplomb that you can almost feel the whoosh of the beasts as they surge past you.

Indeed, throughout the production, the action spills past the stage with performers moving through the stalls and boxes – a spectacle we can look forward to on the tour, too.

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Anthony Lyn, associate director for the global productions of The Lion King, has been working with the show since 1999 and says it’s still as magical to him now as it was then.

Disney's The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre, London. Photo by Catherine Ashmore
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“It never ceases to impress me and entertain me all these years later, and I’m so ebullient about it when I do interviews,” he said.

As one of the biggest shows on the circuit, Anthony says it’s a real feat to bring The Lion King’s towering sets and 350 costumes – the biggest of which is the elephant at 13 feet long and 9 feet wide – to regional audiences.

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"I love the fact that the show is back touring the UK,” he said. “As a child growing up in Swansea, my whole introduction to shows was theatre that came on tour. Like many parents, mine didn’t have the money or facilities to go to the West End so it’s amazing to be able to bring the production to people – and people really get the full show on tour.”

He says it’s a chance to sprinkle some real West End magic across the country

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Stephenson Ardern-Sodje in Disney's The Lion King UK & Ireland tour. Photo by Johan Persson

"I was involved in the very first tour across America. In order to facilitate that, some small changes had to be made, but they’ve actually improved the show and those changes have been brought into the London production,” he explained. “Shows are constantly tweaked and updated. And when we tour, where appropriate, we add in local references.

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"It’s a massive show to run, so it’s amazing that people have the chance to see it. It’s a very expensive show to mount, keep running and move. But everywhere it goes it doesn’t just boost theatre, all the businesses around it, the pubs, the restaurants, the shops, so it’s a win win for everyone.”

Sunderland will be the only North East dates on the tour and is one of the few theatres capable of staging the show.

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"We can only move it to certain theatres and there’s only a few big enough to host it. We want the maximum amount of people to be able to see it, but we need to keep the scale of the show, its grandeur and how impressive it is,” explained Anthony.

Back in the ‘90s, Julie Taymor created a show on an epic scale and since its UK premiere in London on October 19, 1999, The Lion King has been seen by more than 16 million theatregoers.

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And Anthony says there’s many reasons why it’s still got that pulling power all these years later.

Richard Hurst (Scar) and Matthew Forbes (Zazu) in Disney's The Lion King UK & Ireland tour
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"I think there’s many reasons behind its longevity: the entertainment, the spectacle, the familiarity with the film, but also the fact that appeals to everyone,” he explained.” Sometimes there are shows that brothers prefer or sisters prefer, that mums like and dad doesn’t, but this covers all age groups and demographics.

"It’s also a truly multicultural show, it’s like a mini United Nations. In the current tour, we have performers from 19 different countries. It’s a really global family.”

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Being world class is an ethos that flows through the production.

"When we’re starting a show in a new country, we audition first in the country we are in, people in the industry who tick the boxes. But the standard of the production has to be world class, so then we constantly go around the world auditioning people, the very best people in the the world,” explained Anthony.

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"But, above all, we try and look at the personality and spirit of that person. Even if they’re the best singer, it’s no good if they’re not living it and have a joy about it.

"It’s that indefinable thing: someone who is exciting on stage has the power to move you just with their presence. It’s really important that our performers feel that ownership, so each time they’re on stage they’re not just stepping into another performer’s shoes. They’re truly living it themselves.”

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:: Disney’s The Lion King is at Sunderland Empire from Thursday, March 16 to Saturday, May 6, 2023. Priority tickets will be available from 11am on Thursday, October 13, 2022 which you can sign up to at www.atgtickets.com/campaigns/sign-up/disneys-the-lion-king-sunderland/

The general sale will begin at 11am on Friday, October 14. For more information visit: thelionking.co.uk/tour

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Tickets will be priced from £20.

Backstage photography at Disney's The Lion King in London
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Thandazile Soni (Rafiki) in Disney's The Lion King UK & Ireland tour © Disney
Behind the scenes at Disney's The Lion King. Credit Helen Maybanks
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Behind the scenes at Disney's The Lion King . Credit Helen Maybanks