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|A CurtainUp Review
The Lion King
To paraphrase another Broadway show, a wonderful thing happened to The Lion King on the way from Cartoon Kid Hit to Broadway. It arrived with its story line intact but as a completely original and sophisticated work of theatrical art -- a glittering amalgam of puppetry, song, dance, fairy tale and Disney-plus-stand-up comedy humor.
I'd say run don't walk to get your tickets, but there's really no need to rush. I'm not a gambler, but I feel safe in predicting that this spectacular translation from canned entertainment to vibrantly alive stage show is more than likely to become a Forty-Second Street landmark. In fact, if thirteen-year-old Scott Irby-Ranniar, the delightful young lion hero doesn't tire of show business, he might well get a chance to graduate to the role of the older Simba.
So what makes the multi-talented (director, puppet/mask and costume designer, music/lyric contributor) Julie Taymor's version of The Lion King so special? Let me count the ways . . .
The Masks and Puppets and Costumes
For starters she's turned the cartoon movie's story into a musical that takes not only the movie but the concept of theatrical spectacle to a new level. The cartoony characters have been reinvented with wildly imaginative masks and puppets, (co-designed by Michael Curry) with actors and mask/puppets clearly visible to the audience. This purposefully anthropomorphic cast provides a gasp-after-gasp inducing, fly-by two hours and forty minutes. The costumes, an extension of the masks, are equally canny. The hard-to-top "Circle of Love" opening number is a parade that fills the entire theater. The fantastic animals/actors on their way to see Musafa the king of the pride lands and his wife and the baby king to-be Simba. It includes giraffes on stilts, leaping antelopes a lumbering giant and a baby elephant with Afrikan batik ears of and swooping birds.
Plot, Music and Dance
Taymor's clever choices as adaptor/creator/director extend to what she's done with the plot and music which have already won millions of fans.
The plot, as already mentioned is basically intact: Young Simba whose deliciously evil uncle Scar (John Vickery) convinces him that he caused the death of his father, the king, (Samuel E. Wright) and that he should run away to avoid the consequences. In his self-exile he befriends a sharp-tongued meerkat (Tom Alan Robbins) and a kindly warthog ( Jason Raine) who live by a "no worries" ("Hakuna Matata") philosophy -- and not incidentally, add some terrific touches of stand-up comic humor and underscore Taymor's ability to stir a rich brew of culture . Eventually, the grown Simba, meets up with his childhood playmate, Nala (Heather Hadley), and together they return to the pride lands to defeat Scar and reclaim Simba's rightful place as lion king. Nothing Taymor does is ever a carbon copy and so, even as she has stuck with the basic story, she has expanded it emotionally by concentrating not just on Simba's guilt about his father's death but his inclination to sidestep responsibility ("Hakuna Matata"). Fortunately, in Scott Irby-Ranniar she has found an actor who gives Simba just the right touch of loving prince charming and mind-of-his-own pre-teenager.
As for the music and dance. the familiar pop sound of Elton John and Tim Rice is not only present but includes three added numbers. The most important musical addition, however, stems from the exciting African rhythms by Lebo M. His "One by One" tribal chant at the beginning of Act 2 requires no understanding of the language for the audience to respond to its celebratory emotions. The singer Tsidi Le Loka as Rafiki the baboon shaman also adds power to the show's African elements.
Add to this choreography by one of modern dance's best practitioners, Garth Fagan, and you have a musical with everything to set your pulse going.
While the musical cultures are artfully blended, the African music, more than the John/Rice contributions provide the truly distinctive spark. I suppose that comparison will pass as a shortcoming in some people's book, but with more things to praise than space permits, I'd hardly quibble over something which isn't at all bad but simply not on the level of the extraordinary that marks the rest of this endeavor.
Scenic Effects and Costumes.
Like the masks and the puppets and most everything else about the show, the ingeniousness of the scenic effects are almost beyond description. As you've got to hear the music and see the effect of the half human, half animal actors, you've got to see the orange paper sun, the savannah grasses rising from the stage and on top of human heads, a blue cloth that becomes a fish-filled stream. To implement Taymor's creative input, there's also set designer Richard Hudson's swirling pop-up Pride Rock to serve as the center of this magical kingdom.
The performers -- those mentioned above and everyone else -- are uniformly outstanding. Clearly this is the sort of review that's a joy to write and I'd like to conclude it with just a few caveats:
Don't think of this as a show strictly for kids. While it is In fact suitable for the whole family and the theater even provides booster seats, I'd say youngsters should be at least seven or eight to get the most out of it.
On the other hand, if you think you're too adult for a fairy tale about a displaced lion, remember what Picasso once said:" It took me 30 years to draw like a child again."
Take that child's clear-eyed wonder with you but don't let being thirty or forty or a senior citizen keep you from enjoying The Lion King.