If I asked you who Lebo M is, I would be willing to bet that not very many people would be able to tell me. However, if I played you the legendary tribal call that accompanies the opening to The Lion King film, almost instantly it would be recognised. That is the call of Lebo M – a man who until he one day turned up to an open recording session for Disney worked as a valet in a nearby car park. Now, eighteen years on, that iconic call will resonate around the Hippodrome from the end of August as the stage musical adaptation begins its first ever UK tour right here in Bristol!

The multi-award-winning production has played to over 65 million people worldwide, in a multitude of different languages, since its Broadway premiere in 1997 and will soon see its 10 millionth visitor at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Disney will launch a touring production of the show at The Bristol Hippodrome, opening on Thursday 6 September (previews from Friday 31 August) where it will play a limited 11-week season. The production will then play the Palace Theatre Manchester which will include a Christmas season.

This is the first stage show Disney have launched in the city since their acclaimed production of Mary Poppins in 2004 and comes just in time as the Hippodrome celebrates its centenary year. With a company of 52, The Lion King will visit ten cities in the UK & Ireland over two and a half years – further dates to be announced. The West End production of The Lion King, now in its thirteenth year, will continue to play at London’s Lyceum Theatre where it has proved to be a consistent favourite amongst audiences, and it’s easy to see why.

The Lion King tells the coming of age story of the young cub Simba who must come to terms with the death of his father, King Mufasa, at the hands of his uncle Scar and his subsequent banishing from the Pridelands. Over a number of years in exile struggling against the responsibilities of manhood, he returns to confront his Uncle and reclaim his rightful place as King. With music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, along with a vast array of colourful costumes, innovative puppets and masks, and a plethora of scenery – none of which is fixed to the stage – the production is a spectacle for eye and ear like no other in musical theatre.

The show’s producer and President of Disney Theatrical Group, Thomas Schumacher, notes how following his work on the animated film, he was asked by Michael Eisner to lead its transfer from screen to stage. He says: “It was the worst idea I had ever heard, no one said it looked like a Broadway show in the making.” The sheer production value of the film with its great sweeping shots and the diversity of the inhabitants of the Pridelands was going to make a physical adaptation a mammoth task.

Enter Julie Taymor, who had come to the attention of Schumacher whilst working on a production at the Castle Hill festival in Massachusetts. Word quickly spread of the magnitude of Julie’s designs on subsequent projects and after a brief meeting in 1995, Julie was hired to re-imagine The Lion King for the stage.

What emerged was not contained by the look of the film but something wholly original, this includes costumed dancers taking on the roles of plant life and animals alike, including additional tools to move their costumes – particularly notable and impressive is the use of hand and foot stilts to represent giraffes. The masks are mounted above the actors’ heads in order to maintain an understanding through facial expression whilst portraying animal characteristics. For principal characters such as Simba and Scar, the headpieces can be manoeuvred mechanically to create the illusion of cats lunging at each other. All this and a tweaking of character roles and genders make the show a distinct text to the film.

In the stage show, the part of Rafiki is female after Taymor pointed out there was generally no leading female in the film. Schumacher quips that this is not representative of lions in reality being as it is the females who do all of the hunting and the raising of the cubs whilst the male does little more than sleep! “It’s a matriarchy operating under one big patriarch,” jokes Schumacher, and to reflect this end, the character of Nala has a dramatically increased significance. Her new song Shadowlands is particularly rousing and breathtaking. After opening to critical acclaim, Julie made Broadway history by becoming the first female recipient of the prestigious Tony Award for best Director of a Musical, and on this evidence deservedly so.

This tour isn’t only good news for theatre goers in Bristol and beyond. Bristol itself is expecting a rise in tourism directly linked to the musicals residency, which businesses hope will boost the local economy. Furthermore, Disney hope the show will encourage new audiences to come along for the first time. Following its West End transfer, there has been endless talk of when The Lion King will finally head out on tour. This talk intensified with the beginning of the North America tour and now it has finally happened here in the UK. It is without a doubt one of the largest scale productions Bristol has entertained in its theatre history and according to Schumacher, the tour aims to “bring the magic of The Lion King to local cities to share with those who haven’t experienced it before.” I for one, being a massive fan of musical theatre and having had my first taste of the show, cannot wait to see it in all its glory this summer!

The Lion King @ The Bristol Hippodrome – From 6th September until 17th November (Previews from 31st August) – Tickets available through www.bristolhippodrome.org.uk or by calling 0844 871 3012

James Bonser