Lion King Reminds Us We Need More Quality Children’s Theater In Philly

Who will step up?

Photo by Joan Marcus

Photo by Joan Marcus

On Thursday night, I walked into the Lion King at the Academy of Music with my wife and two children (ages seven and nine) after goat tacos and margaritas at Jose Pistola’s (well, the kids had juice), not entirely sure what to expect.

Oh, I knew there was some character named Simba. And I knew that I was going to hear that wretched Elton John tune “Circle of Life.” But that’s about it.

When I mentioned my plans to a friend on Thursday, he responded, “Hakuna Matata!” And I was like, “What?” No clue. Never saw the movie. Wasn’t aware that there wasn’t a book. Never spent a gazillion dollars to go see it on Broadway.

And when I told my kids that I knew virtually nothing about the Lion King, my nine-year-old son offered this assistance en route to the theater: “It’s about a lion cub who ascends to the throne.” Gee, thanks, kid. Never woulda guessed that.

The show came in at over two-and-a-half hours with a “fifteen” (read: twenty-five) minute intermission. I’m told they cut some songs, which was fine with me. The kids normally hit the sack at 7:30 p.m. (I know, that’s rough), which is when the curtain went up — or at least that’s when it was supposed to go up. And the merchandising staff — this show is merchandised out the wazoo — used the waiting time as an opportunity to walk through the aisles with trays of overpriced Lion King toys and mementos for sale, which was a bit much.

So what’s there to say about the show itself? I thought that veteran Philadelphia theater-maker Greg Giovanni nailed it with a comment he posted on Facebook last night after seeing the Lion King at the Academy of Music, also for the first time. He summed it up in three words: Beautiful but unsatisfying.

He went on:

My “theatre wife” hit it on the head when she said, “There is no room for critical thinking, nothing to think about or learn.” I would add, “you never question the hero and you never sympathize with the villain.” As entertaining as Disney® is, it sucks that generations think of these works as “great children’s entertainment.” They’re merely cotton candy for the soul.

But as cotton candy for the soul goes, the Academy of Music Lion King production is the top of the line cotton candy for the soul. Not that pre-made stuff you buy at the grocery store (ew), but the kind you get freshly spun at a carnival in the summer. (OK, that stuff is pretty ew, too, but you get the point.)

No, my kids didn’t walk out of there asking critical questions, but they had big old grins on their faces the entire time and actually sat through something that was approaching three hours in length.

And with a show of that production caliber, they came away thinking about the impressive stagecraft and puppetry involved, and something tells me they’re going to be trying to create a twelve-foot-tall giraffe over the weekend.

Plus, we’re a very musical household, and the Lion King‘s music is one of the main highlights of the show. If you wince every time you hear the movie versions of the Elton John songs, you should know that they’re much, much better performed on the stage. And the music provides an entry point to explore more African music genres: I bet your kids would be thrilled to be introduced to Fela Kuti.

But, ultimately, the Lion King reminds us that we need more quality children’s theater in Philadelphia. Children’s theater that does leave room for critical thinking, that does give them something to think about, something to learn.

We love taking the kids to see whatever children’s theater the Arden does, and if you missed their stunning and thoroughly non-Disney production of Beauty and the Beast over the winter, you missed out. (Luckily, you still have time to get to the Arden for their thoroughly non-Disney production of Jungle Book, which wraps on June 21st.)

The kids (and their parents) have also enjoyed the work of theater creator and puppet maker Sebastian Mundheim. The new initiative from PAPAYA seems promising. And there are occasionally some interesting children’s offerings in the FringeArts Festival.

But we need more. A lot more.

Pig Iron Theatre Company co-founder Quinn Bauriedel has long talked about the idea of creating a “theater speakeasy” for kids. And I think the time is right for that.

Many members of the theater community that helped put Philadelphia’s live arts scene on the map in a major way have children of their own or will soon. Seriously, there must be something in the water.

And more and more people are choosing to raise their kids inside the city — smart parents with smart kids looking for smart things to do.

So this seems like the perfect time to start a new movement and to create a new generation of theater creators so that, hopefully, when we’re old and grey, we’ll have something other than just the Lion King to look at. (But, for real, we are so taking our grandkids to see the Lion King when that day comes.)

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  • Bette Askins

    Great review, insightful and inspiring ?

  • Kit

    The Walnut Street Theatre offers an excellent kids series, 4 shows a year plus A Christmas Carol for the holidays. The shows they do are all popular children’s books, plus it’s incredibly cheap, $8-$10.50/seat per show. All the shows teach a valuable lesson. You should look into that, because that is basically what you are saying doesn’t exist in Philly, but it does.

    • vfiorillo

      I’m well aware of the WST’s theater offerings…

  • Morgan

    We do need more shows for kids. The Arden’s was complex and brought many issues into play: morality, growing up, being different, having fun….The goal of a successful kids’ show should be to speak to the kid and not at the kid, which most shows do not do. (P.S. as a non-parent, I enjoy good children’s theatre.)

  • Judith Briggs

    While I agree that there should be more children’s theater in Philly, especially for tweens and teens, you’ve left out a lot that is already going on. I’m glad you mentioned the excellent offerings of Papaya and the Arden; everything I’ve seen with Papaya has been so original and inventive, and Robin Hood, among many other productions at the Arden, was excellent. But you did not mention the wonderful offerings of the Annenberg children’s fest, or the highly imaginative stagings of The Enchantment theater group. Shakespeare at Clark Park made Henry IV accesible for my 12 year old, and Summer Stage at Upper Darby high school inspires kids to realize they can join in and get on the stage. My view of children’s theater is that it inspires creativity, stirs imagination, and opens a door to a different view of the world. The Lion Ling has Shakespearean themes running throughout it, and if your kids are going to attempt a giraffe puppet, then I think the Lion King has done its job.

  • Martha Cooney

    Check out StoryUP! (, @storyupphilly). Our theater group presents interactive improvised shows based on ideas and stories from the children in the audience. Our regular hour-long monthly show is starting up again in September 2015, the first Saturday of each month at 4700 Kingsessing Ave in West Philly (at the new Children’s Community School space), for $10 per family for tickets. The show is improvised based on children’s ideas, suggestions, and stories written during the show. Kids come onstage, join in the play, and practice the literacy-theater connection firsthand. Our show is child-centered, with each performance completely unique. Along with our regular monthly show, we go on the road to festivals, libraries, and schools. We hope you will check us out!