The last time I got emotional and teary-eyed at Disneyland was during one of the final viewings of Fantasmic! in late 2019/early 2020. (It’s back, by the way, as of May 28.) But on the afternoon of May 26, during a special preview during a media experience of Celebrate Soulfully, I was overcome with Disney Magic and pride watching the new staging of Tale of the Lion King.
Picture this, a parade of good-looking Black folk of all shades and sizes, singing Disney songs loud and proud. Smiling, like they are living their best life. It was a wonderful thing to behold. The music and their voices touched my soul, and I wanted nothing more than to see them succeed.
Tale of the Lion King is a new and unique theatrical adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King. Located in Disneyland at the Fantasyland Theatre, the live stage production introduces all-new set pieces, original musical arrangements, and amazing choreography. The entire production draws inspiration while paying homage to the cultural roots of the story. Tale of the Lion King is one of the ways you can Celebrate Soulfully at Disneyland Resort this summer.
The show is narrated by a traveling troupe known as the Storytellers of the Pride Lands. They are villagers in this land who all reenact the tale of how Simba went from cub to king. Using dialogue, song, dance, and instruments, the story of your favorite little lion and his adventures come to life. The voices are beautiful, the dancing is creative, and there are no animal costumes covering faces. It’s spectacular. The show is brought to life by an expanded cast of twenty actors, singers, dancers, and drummers. As the lead narrator Mwongozo recounts Simba’s journey, Storytellers embody the roles of King Mufasa and his brother Scar, young Simba and Nala, and comic relief Pumbaa and Timon.
While enjoying the show, you can also savor delicious new bites. Chef Natalie Willingham has given her take on the Tale of the Lion King through food at Troubadour Tavern. For tasty snacks, try the Salted Plantain Chips or the Berbere-Spice Popcorn tossed with a warming blend of spices. The Chicken-Coconut Curry Sweet Potato features a baked sweet potato topped with a Malawian chicken-coconut curry. For dessert, Hakuna Matata Sweets offer up a trio of animal print cookies, including a coconut macaroon, pineapple orange thumbprint and a butter chocolate chunk cookie topped with cacao nibs and a white chocolate animal print décor. To wash it all down, there’s the Cardamom Cold Brew and the Pride Rock Punch made with Gold Peak tea, pineapple, mango, tamarind, and orange juice over ice.
Disney Live Entertainment designed new costumes and hairstyles for the ensemble dancers. Disney leadership (for example, Susana Tubert, Creative Director, Disney Live Entertainment, and Associate Show Director Paul Bryant) made sure we could see ourselves in this show. “I think that as a company,” stated Tubert during the panel discussion after the preview, “we’re recognizing that we need to augment the voices at the table so that our products are authentic, genuine, and as beautiful as what you just saw today.”
The new costumes are elaborately designed with inspiration from the story, with details including vibrant colors, layering fabrics, and African-styled headwear. The hair in Tale of the Lion King matters in the storytelling, just like it matters in our community. Cosmetology Manager Shemika Draughan came in and designed beautiful hair moments. “It was really important to me to bring more realism and true authenticity with our individuality, with the story, and the variety of hairstyles, textures, and things that the dancers brought,” said Draughan during the panel. “One thing Paul [Bryant] and I talked a lot about was making sure that the dancers felt comfortable and what’s more comfortable than your own hair.”
The dancing in Tale of the Lion King is some of the best I have seen. Choreographed by brothers Kevin and Marcel Wilson, this all-new staging incorporates exciting styles of dance such as African, house, stepping, jazz-funk, and contemporary. The Wilson brothers have worked and toured with artists such as Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Cher. They have also worked on Broadway, film, and television. Dance was an integral part of telling this story. “We wanted to bring musical theater and also the pop world where we come from, and kind of combine that and tell the story through choreography,” said Marcel Wilson at the panel. “We also went as far as Simba having a signature move to make it Simba. Scar had a certain bit of quirk that he would do all the time that you could recognize.”
While other gems like select Swahili dialogue and lyrics are seamlessly woven into this theatrical production, there is also a family and kids component making sure everyone has a good time. There is a coloring craft activity before each performance at the Fantasyland Theatre, and kids can dance along to the “Hakuna Matata” musical number with their creations. It truly is a well-thought-out production that is visibly diverse.
Celebrate Soulfully is the latest project from Disneyland. It showcases rich experiences that honor Black heritage and culture. It’s an extremely cool way to celebrate Black music month in June.