The Lion King at the Orpheum
The musical version of Disney's The Lion King came back to town last week to its original home at the Orpheum Theatre, with 15 years of hype pushing its sails. Would it impress a cynical critic who, somehow, has managed to miss the show on its past trips through town? Oh, yeah.
The Lion King is a visual and aural feast that overwhelms the rather standard coming-of-age story that lies within it. It moves you through its rich visual tapestry, from one spectacular set piece to the next—the savannah brought to life by actors wearing massive, flowing patches of grass on their heads, a hunting party of lionesses tracking down their prey, a wildebeest stampede that engulfs the stage—in a way that quickly breaks down any defenses.
A lot of that comes through the singular efforts of Julie Taymor. Before she became a punch line for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Taymor cut her teeth on work that bridged disciplines. All of that experience came together in the design of The Lion King, which brings out its African setting through vibrant, still incredible costumes (which she created) that often integrate puppets and masks (Taymor again, working with Michael Curry).
She also employs plenty of storytelling techniques, spending as much time illustrating the "circle of life" theme that permeates the show as tracking Simba's growth from callow cub to roaring king. Sometimes the hunts play out in shadow puppets displayed across the stage; other times the power can come from a repeated image, such as a bicycle-contraption of leaping gazelles that moves from full body in the first act to skeletal in the second to show us the drought that has come in the wake of the king's death.
The original film's DNA is still here. Youthful Simba is headstrong and eager for adventure, which his Iago-like uncle, Scar, uses to perfect effect, getting rid of his hated brother and the only rival for the throne in one act. Simba flees, makes friends with a couple of animals from much lower in the food chain, and retreats from all his responsibility. With the help of his friend Nala, Simba regains his pride and eventually the pride, returning to his rightful place at the top of the food chain, though I'm sure his friends are off the menu.
The original Elton John-Tim Rice score is broadened and brightened by additional pieces, most of which sport a heavier African beat than the originals. It's not a perfect fit—it never seems to be when a film with songs is turned into a full Broadway musical—but like the overall design, the added material deepens the texture. In fact, it's the staging of the John-Rice songs, more than the music, that stick in the mind: the multicolored puppets, a striking elephant graveyard, or the Act One closing "Hakuna Matata" (kind of a poor man's "Bare Necessities").
The touring company gives excellent performances from top to bottom. The main actors use every bit of their performing muscles, as they not only sing, act, and dance but also manipulate their masks and puppets. They go for the gusto here, especially Dionne Randolph and J. Anthony Crane as the battling brothers that fuel the story, Mufasa and Scar. The two provide the right amount of gravity for the characters and then take off in their own directions. Crane brings out the sly side of his villain, which makes him a clear bad guy without losing the charm needed to make the role work. Randolph brings terrific stage presence and a wonderful voice to his turn as the king, letting his presence loom large long after the character has died.
The various secondary animals stand out as well, especially Mark David Kaplan as the hornbill advisor Zazu and Nick Cordileone as the meerkat Timon. The two roles serve as comic relief, and both actors are up to the task, using their voices, bodies, and puppets to wring out the humor in their characters.
A clue to how well oiled a machine this play is: Two of the key support roles were played by understudies opening night, but Jonathan Weir as Simba's friend Pumbaa and Ntomb'Khona Dlamini as the mandrill storyteller Rafiki didn't miss a beat.
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