On April 8th, Busch Gardens Tampa opened a brand new show at its Moroccan Palace Theater. Pulling inspiration from the park's African theme, KaTonga is a 35-minute long production with music, acrobatics, and amazing puppetry. While this production may look or sound similar to DAK's Festival of The Lion King, it still carries an originality that sets it apart and an energy that makes it worthy of your attention.
This is no ordinary show simply thrown together by a theme park entertainment division. The design of the Moroccan Palace Theater alone is impressive. For a theater which has featured ice-skating stage shows for the past fifteen years, it's actually a surprise to learn that, according to Producer Don Frantz, the theater is "the only legitimate full scale Broadway-style theater in a theme park on the entire East Coast."
Frantz, along with Broadway director Chase Senge, work with a full-range of creative individuals from some of Broadway's finest shows. Michael Curry is the designer responsible for the fantastic puppets from the Broadway version of "The Lion King" and now uses his skills to create the awe-inspiring creatures for KaTonga. Don Holder is the Tony-award winning lighting designer responsible for the many lighting effects. Abdel Salaam is the man behind the choreography. You can really see a blend of different dance styles unlike anything before--traditional African-style dances, ballet and even breakdancing are all a part of the dance and to see all these different styles together in one production is impressive, in my opinion.
When you enter the theater, the first thing you'll see are two large African-style trees with branches that reach up and together, framing the stage beautifully. The entire backdrop depicts a starry sky, with hundreds of tiny twinkling lights. As the saying goes, first impressions are the most important, and the production team certainly realized this.
As our story begins, we meet Karume, a master storyteller, who calls together the best storytellers of Africa, called griots, and challenges them to tell the best stories they possibly can. One tells the story of Whirly, a young monkey who learns about being confident (to the tune of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy"). Next, we have the song of Kipopo, a caterpillar struggling to find her place in the world of insects, follows with a story about Rok Rok, a bullfrog who's taught a lesson in living with others in harmony (accompanied by the Leslie Bricusse song "Talk With The Animals"). The finale is a story from about an African crowned crane named Kilinda and a great flood that threatens to wash away two lovers. The song "Celebrate the Light" is perhaps the true highlight of the production, uplifting and inspiring--and it's original, written by Tampa native Desmond Boone who has been writing music for BGT for 25 years.
This is a very technical show. Things may go wrong. Maybe a prop might not move when it needs to, maybe an actor or puppeteer may be slightly off, maybe a curtain won't move exactly as it should. Despite these minor difficulties, the actors go on with the show, and they do a spectacular job. The length is wonderful, the acting is superb, this is simply a beautiful musical. In that respect, if you're not a fan of Broadway musicals, this show might not be your cup of tea. Otherwise, if you plan on going to Busch Gardens anytime soon, go see this show! On a TPI scale of 0-10, I give a very high 9-Outstanding. Until next week, folks, keep on ridin'!
Not that it isn't a nice theater. And it is indoors, which the Orlando parks could learn from! And they have always put effort into the shows here, so I'm glad they seem to have found one that fits the African theme a little better than ice skating.
Compared to Festival of The Lion King over at DAK, I think folks might find the untraditional setting more exciting (not to mention the fact the show is based on one of the last good Disney animated films)...
... and both shows have acrobatic monkeys. Course, over at Sea World, Odyssea has acrobatic penguins.