With performances of hit musicals often held in different parts of the world each night, it’s hard to know which one is ‘the real deal’.
This is a question often thrown at Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, one of the stars of The Lion King Musical, playing at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi from Wednesday to December 10.
Talk to The Nationalthe South African actor is part of the international production, which includes seasons in London’s West End and Broadway in New York.
Khanyile, who was once part of the London cast, said the Abu Dhabi show would not miss a beat.
“You won’t see the difference when it comes to quality,” he says.
“While there are shows in the US and UK, we’ve managed to keep all of the productions crystal clear when it comes to telling that same amazing story in a beautiful way.”
A timeless story
Adapted from the 1994 Disney animated musical, The Lion King is set in an African kingdom of lions and follows the eventful journey of young lion cub Simba as he prepares to succeed his father Mufasa.
In addition to Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-winning musical score and hit songs circle of life and Can’t you feel the love tonight by Elton John and Tim Rice, the epic action sequences and lavish savannah settings of The Lion King represented a new high for animation.
Technical virtuosity has been reproduced in the 2019 Live Action Movie through the use of state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery.
The musical brings its own creative and technical magic to the table with epic stage sets, colorful costumes, and more than 200 puppets that, according to production notes, took almost 37,000 hours to build.
“We ship most of our sets across continents. It normally takes almost 30 containers to transport everything and the crew does an incredible job of putting it all together,” he says.
“As for me and the cast, we normally come about a week in advance to rest, acclimatize and prepare.”
Khanyile, who plays the majestic and tragic Mufasa, is better prepared than most.
He’s been in the cast since 2014, after a successful audition in South Africa that landed him a role in the London run as Mufasa’s understudy.
As well as playing the role sporadically in the West End, Khanyile reprized the role when it transferred to international production in 2018.
“You could say I’ve been preparing for this role for almost five years and it’s an absolute joy to play because, like all great characters, it also resonates with what’s happening today,” he says.
“He is witty, stoic and strong in his beliefs. He’s telling Simba and, really us in the audience, that at the end of the day, we have to remember to be true to who we are.”
From South Africa to the world
This feeling of intimacy is emphasized, with The Lion King cast mainly hailing from South Africa.
The score also features the work of Lebo M, the South African composer behind the euphoric Zulu song that opens the film and the show.
“There will be authentic South African voices in this production,” says Khanyile.
“What also makes touring the show more special is that the actors travel and hang out together and it feels like family. It’s very different from the residency shows in London or New York where you basically live at home and go to the show every day.
“The atmosphere is more professional and collegial than family.”
The success of films and global production also showcases the depth of stage and musical talent in South Africa – territory often overlooked by producers.
“Many of us would not have access to the world without The Musical The Lion King. There are so many amazing shows around the world, but reaching them, as actors from South Africa and the continent, was difficult because we weren’t able to travel and audition for them.” Khanyile said.
“But now we’ve had the chance to take part in international musical theater and show what we can do.”
And what’s on stage in Abu Dhabi is only a fraction of what the talent on the African stage has to offer, he says.
He is adamant about more blockbusters such as The Lion King may emerge from South Africa.
“We just need industry development and investors who want to be part of it,” he says.
“Because we have our own story and talents to share with the world. We just need this exposure and we’re good to go.”
The Lion King Musical at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi runs from November 16 to December 10. Tickets from 200 Dh; evening shows start at 7 p.m. and matinees at 1 p.m. More information is available at etihadarena.ae
Scroll through the gallery below for photos from the lineup of Abu Dhabi Classics 2022
Updated: November 14, 2022, 11:29 a.m.