It’s a safe bet that few people are drawn to theme parks for the indoor shows they offer, but the parks in Central Florida are upgrading their productions to enhance the lure of their overall attractions in a competitive market. The days of cruise ship-style shows, with broadly smiling singers and dancers lip-synching to Broadway and soft rock hits, are giving way to far more elaborate productions.
Nevertheless, Broadway is proving a strong inspiration for the latest efforts. Disney offers an abbreviated version of its hit “The Lion King” at the Animal Kingdom park outside Orlando, and now the competing Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has upped the ante with its original musical “KaTonga: Musical Tales From the Jungle.”
Like “Lion King,” “KaTonga” is set in Africa and features humans playing imaginatively designed animals created by Michael Curry. He mixes masks and puppet elements to turn men and women into rhinos, lions, giraffes, caterpillars and other jungle creatures.
Tony Award-winning lighting designer Donald Holder (“The Lion King”) has done a masterful job of lighting the frequently moving elements of James Leonard Joy’s set, dominated by two large trees with branches and leaves that spread across the proscenium. Costumer Frank Krenz keeps the color quotient high.
“KaTonga” in Swahili means a place for telling stories, and its show is about four apprentice storytellers trying to impress a master with their vivid descriptions of animal life in various parts of the African continent.
Each story is told through a musical number by Desmond Boone, who has created a captivating score that incorporates parts of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as well as “Talk to the Animals” from the original 1967 film version of “Doctor Dolittle.”
The opening sequence, featuring the youthfully exuberant Arvell Readus as Ayo, is about an adorable and playful young monkey named Whirly, who begins as a small hand puppet that is somehow able to climb a tree on its own. Whirly grows up into an adult and learns a lesson about the importance of taking risks.
Larry Alan Coke is a commanding presence as the master storyteller Karume, encouraging his charges to tell their tales.
Tyrone Robinson sings about a bullfrog named RokRok who hasn’t learned to manage the sound of his croaking, and Tymisha Harris tells the colorful story of a caterpillar that blossoms into a soaring butterfly, with wings that spread across the stage.
Showstopper comes with the song “Celebrate the Light,” led by Romona Dunlap as Shade, about how people and animals can work together to ensure our survival.
Director Charles Senge and choreographer Abdel R. Salaam keep the show moving at a brisk pace. The production uses pre-recorded music, but the singing is live and often exciting. More importantly, the show isn’t some odd anomaly within the theme park, but a perfect fit with Busch Garden’s emphasis on displaying the wild animals of Africa in a tamer environment.