Dashaun Young feels the love every night playing Simba in The Lion King

On the road with the star of the stage adaptation of The Lion King

Can you feel the love tonight? Well, Dashaun Young can, and he does every night as audiences roar their approval. Starring as Simba in the touring production of The Lion King, Young is preparing for the migration to Edinburgh next month, where it takes over the Playhouse until the end of March.

Through the dark, dreich Scottish winter, where better to escape to than the African savannah?

“The first number in the show, Circle of Life, transports you,” Young says. “It’s my favourite number in the show. Phenomenal. You have the animals walking one-by-one on stage and it’s breathtaking.

“The puppetry, the costumes – it’s another level from the animated feature. You really watch these animals on stage come to life. You see the giraffe walk on stage for the first time and it actually looks like a giraffe walking on stage. It resonates as truth. You don’t have to suspend your disbelief too much because it blows your mind.”

Twenty-five years after the original Disney animation, The Lion King remains one of the best-loved modern fairytales. The photorealistic remake made over $1.6bn at the box office last year, but the extended life of the story is thanks partly to the long-running stage adaptation. More than 16 million people have watched the musical that this year celebrates its 20th anniversary in London’s West End.

“I think it has something for everyone,” says Young. “You can bring anyone to the show, it doesn’t have to be a musical theatre lover, and it’s just a heartfelt true story that resonates with so many people. Everyone has dealt with insecurities in life, trying to take your place and figuring out who you are.”

Young didn’t have long to wait to be king. He first played the role of the cub who would be king Simba fresh out of college in 2007 aged 23. 

“The first rehearsal was a read-through then getting back to basics,” he says. “We had about four weeks, learned how to use Javanese and Balinese, these two movement styles that the lions predominantly use in the show. We studied that in the mirror so it felt like second nature on stage.”

And when finally the costume and Simba’s mask was introduced, it felt like a coronation.

“At first it’s intimidating, now it feels so comfortable. If I get called into a rehearsal I want to put on a mask because now it makes me feel like Simba.”

Over the years, Young’s take on the runaway cub who has to face up to his past has changed.

“I feel like my take on Simba is much more well-rounded than it was in 2007. I’ve experienced more so it’s easier to tap into these feelings that I didn’t really wholeheartedly understand when I was 23. It’s a much more truthful performance now.

“The hard part of theatre is to make it realistic every night. I have a good onstage partner. Josslynn Hlenti, my Nala, is so present and every night we try to have fun and play and change it up, catch each off guard to make sure we’re paying attention. But also it’s the story and the music. I start singing Endless Night and I can’t help but feel the emotion behind it. It’s pretty hard to phone in The Lion King.”

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Young has starred in multiple tours across the US and the rest of the world.

“Audiences do react differently,” he says. “At the end, pretty much everyone enjoys the show and gives their all at the curtain call. In America during the show, people are more boisterous. At Circle of Life they usually go crazy and clap and yell and hoot. In South Korea we had a much quieter, reserved audience. Then we got to the end of the show and they went nuts.”

At least the cast have a helpful, life-affirming phrase to stop them worrying. What Hakuna Matata-esque mantra does Young live by?

“I try to live in the moment and not let life pass me by too much.”

The Lion King is at the Edinburgh Playhouse until March 29 atgtickets.com