The Lion King returns to Broadway; features Fil-Am Vince Ermita as young Simba

by Ricky Rillera

| Screengrab from The Lion King YouTube Video

NEW YORK – The wait is over. In Swahili, Hakuna Matata roughly translates to “there are no troubles,” and Broadway came alive again Tuesday night, Sept. 14.

When they turned the lights on and curtains went up at the Minskoff Theatre, everyone was excited. Not even an 11-year-old Fil-Am Vince Ermita could wait to come on stage for a debut moment to play the role of young Simba in the return of The Lion King, one of the most popular stage musicals in the world.

The Lion King, which premiered on November 13, 1997, once had Fil-Am Adam Jacobs, who played the coveted role of Simba, returned to Broadway following an unprecedented 18-month shutdown of the theater industry. In a Broadway first, the performance of Circle of Life was live-streamed on Tiktok, opening up the historic evening to fans all over the world.

Brandon A. McCall in the lead role as Simba | Screengrab from YouTube
Curtain Call | Photo Curtis Brown

Coming back to the Broadway cast are Stephen Carlile as Scar, L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa, Tshidi Manye as Rafiki, Cameron Pow as Zazu, Ben Jeffrey as Pumbaa, Fred Berman as Timon, Adrienne Walker as Nala, James Brown-Orleans as Banzai, Bonita J. Hamilton as Shenzi, and Robb Sapp as Ed.

New to the cast is Brandon A. McCall in the role of Simba. McCall makes his Broadway debut, having starred in the North American tour. Additionally, newcomers Vince Ermita and Corey J. will alternate as Young Simba, Alayna Martus, and Sydney Elise Russell rotate as Young Nala.

11-year-old Vince Ermita as young Simba | Photo The Lion King Website

Ermita, in the role of young Simba at specific performances, is excited about his Broadway debut. He performed as Lawrence, one of the lead cast members in the regional play School of Rock, The Musical, in Utah before he auditioned for the role of young Simba. In an interview, he first auditioned when he was nine years old where out of 3,000 kids, he made it to the Top 7. But at that time, he was too small for the role, and only four got picked. He tried again, and thanks to his voice teachers Amelia Demayo, acting coach Ethan Haberfield, dance coach Janine Molinari, agent Mallory and Leorah, he made it.

“I want to applaud this audience tonight on our re-opening, I do. You all have the desire, the enthusiasm, the courage to lead the way,” said Julie Taymor, director of the show. “Because as we know, theater in New York is the lifeblood and soul of the city. So, as Rafiki says, it is time.” The audience responded with thunderous applause, and the show began with Nala’s iconic opening number, The Circle of Life.

Fil-Am Vince Ermita (left) during the curtain call | The Lion King | Photo BroadwayWorld
Julie Taymar (left) with Gloria Steinem at the re-opening of The Lion King | Photo Curtis Brown

Gloria Steinem (whose life is the focus of the 2020 Taymor film, The Glorias) was among the celebrities who graced the re-opening night. Today Show’s Jenna Bush Hager and Carson Daly also came together with three stars of Aladdin: Michael Maliakel (Aladdin), Michael James Scott (Genie), and Shoba Narayan (Jasmine). Aladdin will celebrate its Broadway reopening on September 28.

Julie Taymor (The Tempest, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), an award-winning film and stage director and costume designer, directed the show. The Lion King” highlights Elton John and Tim Rice’s hit songs Circle of Life, I Just Can’t Wait to Be King, and Can You Feel the Love Tonight from the 1994 full-length animated film of the same title.

The Broadway score also thrives in its additional three songs by John and Rice; new musical materials by South African Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Taymor, and Hans Zimmer; and music from Rhythm of the Pride Lands, an album inspired by the original music in the film, written by Lebo M, Mancina and Zimmer. The resulting sound of The Lion King is a fusion of Western popular music and the distinctive sounds and rhythms of Africa, ranging from the Academy Award-winning song Can You Feel the Love Tonight to Lebo M’s rich choral numbers.

Besides being the show’s director, Taymor is also the mask co-designer and plays an integral part in the show’s ongoing success. The first woman to win a Tony Award for Direction of a Musical, Taymor supervises new productions worldwide.

Simba with Nala | Screengrab from YouTube Video
Simba’s “Endless Night” | Screengrab from YouTube Video

The Lion King won six 1998 Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Scenic Design (Richard Hudson), Best Costume Design (Julie Taymor), Best Lighting Design (Donald Holder), Best Choreography (Garth Fagan), and Best Direction of a Musical. The Lion King has also earned more than 70 major art awards, including the 1998 NY Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, the 1999 Grammy® for Best Musical Show Album, the 1999 Evening Standard Award for Theatrical Event of the Year, and the 1999 Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Choreography and Best Costume Design.

Amid the pandemic, Endless Night, one of the beautiful songs of the show, reminds us that the light will eventually shine through after a long night of sorrow and anguish. An excerpt goes:

“I know that the night must end
and that the sun will rise
I know that the clouds must clear
and that the sun will shine.”

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