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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.

Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Adapted from the 1994 Disney animated musical
Directed by Julie Taymor
Choreography by Garth Fagan
Music and Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, and Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer.
With Tsidii Le Loka, Samuel E. Wright, Tom Alan Robbins, Geoff Hoyle, Scott Irby-Ranniar, Kajuana Shufford, Jason Raize, Heather Headley and others
Sets: Richard Hudson
Lighting: Donald Holder
Costumes: Julie Taymor
New Amsterdam Theater, 214 W. 42nd St. 307-4100.
Performances begin 10/15/97. Opens 11/13
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 11/20/97

Some Fascinating Tidbits About The Lion King and Its Beautiful Home

Fun Facts About the Lion King Masks/Puppets and Costumes The show features more than 100 puppets including rod puppets, shadow puppets and full-sized puppets, which it took 37,000 hours to build

The 25 kinds of animals represented by the puppets include birds, fish and insects.

Mufasa's mask weights 11 ounce and Scar's 9 and-a-half ounces. It took 750 pounds of silicone rubber to make the masks.

The tallest animals in the show are the 26-foot flying giraffes in the "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" number

The tiniest animal in the show is the 5-inch trick mouse at the end of Scar's cane. The longest animal is a a 13 foot long elephant (it's 11'3" high, 9 feet wide at the ears and collapses to 34 inches wide so that it can go clumping down the aisle at the New Amsterdam.

The Timon puppet weighs 15 pounds.

Ant-Hill Lady features 106 ants

60 pounds of grass

Things to Check Out when you visit the New Amsterdam Theatre
The 40 feet wide by 36 feet high proscenium arch and its spectacular ornamentation:

The 16 plaster peacocks entwined with vines (by a sculptr named St. John Issing)

Two murals of Virtue and Courage flanking the arch and above the arch an allegorical mural (painted gy Robert Blum and Albert Wenzel) which include figures of Poetry, Truth Love, Melancholy, Death, Chivalry and Romance, as well as the Jester, the Lion and the King

The twelve boxes, each named for a different flowers and fully restored since they were destroyed more than 50 years ago to make way for a movie screen. During The Lion King performance, the front boxes house musicians and, at times, singers.

The castings on the ballustrades of the terra cotta staircases that include the animals from the fables of La Fontaine and Aesop and fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson. Be sure to also check out the heads in the newel posts which represent characters from Shakespeare
Other famous images can be found in the dozen plaster relief panels (by Rolan Hinton Perry) that are scattered throught the theater. These include five Shakespearean scenes (On the east wall of the lobby), five panels from Wagner's operas (west wall of the lobby), a panel over the entrance door depicting the story of Faust and a panel over the door to the foyer depicting figues of "Ancient Drama."

The inlaid oak carvings of 38 heads of famous Lovers of Historical Drama (by Strunz) in the general reception room.

A series of murals of the history of New York and the Hudson River Valley in the New Amsterdam Room on the lower level. The quote circling that room, "I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad" is from Shakespeare's As You Like It (Act 4, scene 1, line 25).
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Circle of I.ife. Rafiki, Ensemble
  • Thc Morning Report . Zazu, Young Simba Muthsa
  • I Just Can't Wait to be King . Young Simba, Young Nala, Zazu, Enscmble
  • Chow Down. Shenzi, Banzai, Ed
  • Thcy Live In You . Mufasa, Ensemble
  • Be Prepared . Scar, Shenzi, Banzai, Ed, Ensemble
  • Be Prepared (Reprise) . Scar, Ensemble
  • Rafiki's Tree
  • Hakuna Matata . Timon, Pumbaa, Young Simba, Simba, Ensemble
Act Two
  • One by One. Ensemble
  • The Madness of King Scar . Scar, Zazu, Banzai Shenzi, Ed, Nala
  • Shadowland . Nala, Rafiki, Ensemble
  • Endless Night . Simba, Ensemble
  • Can You Feel the Love Tonight . Timon, Pumbaa, Simba, Nala, Ensemble
  • He Lives in You' /Reprise) . Rafiki, Simba, Ensemble
  • King of Pride Rock/Circle of Life (Reprise) .Ensemble

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