You’ve got to give the Disney folks credit. Having gone to the time, effort, and expense to recruit Tony Award–winning director Julie Taymor to translate the popular 1995 film to the stage, they had the good sense to realize that the best way to maximize their return on that investment was to get out of her way and let her re-imagine the show from the ground up.
The result was a runaway hit that garnered rave reviews and took a half-dozen Tony awards. Fifteen years later it’s still running at the Minskoff Theater on Broadway and in seven different productions worldwide. The overall gross to date is a stunning $4.8 billion. I’d call that “maximized”.
For those of you who have yet to see this remarkable show, know that the spectacular opening number sets the tone for the entire evening. As a giant red-orange sun rises over the African plain, the first sounds you hear are not those of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Anglo-American pop, which makes up the majority of the score, but rather the distinctly African melodies of Lebo M.
Led by South African actress Buyi Zama as the baboon Shaman Rafiki and answered by actors high in the side balconies, the call and response changes into “The Circle of Life” as the animals gather at Pride Rock, which slowly rises from the center of the stage. Tall, elegant giraffes, a lumbering elephant, leaping gazelles, a graceful cheetah, colorful birds—they stream in from every aisle and across the stage, surrounding the audience in light, sound, and color. The opening-night audience burst into spontaneous applause and whoops of delight—a pattern that repeated itself throughout the evening.
Except for the lions and Rafiki, all the animals are ingenious puppets created by Taymor and collaborator Michael Curry. In the tradition of Japanese Bunraku puppet theatre, no attempt is made to conceal the puppeteers, who are also the singers and dancers. In fact, the only way to actually see the human performers is to force yourself to look at them instead of their puppets; that’s how completely invested they all are in their roles.
Among the principals, most impressive were Brent Harris’s cheerfully devious Scar, Jelani Remy’s brash and athletic Simba, and Syndee Winters’s loving and loyal Nala, Simba’s friend and (inevitably) queen. Dionne Randolph is an appropriately regal Mufasa, although the role doesn’t give an actor all that much to play with.
Buyi Zama is a continual delight as Rafiki, a plum part if ever there was one. She communicates and connects beautifully, despite the fact that most of her role is in Zulu.
Standouts among the puppet actors include Nick Cordileone and original Broadway cast member Ben Lipitz as Timon and Pumbaa, the Abbott and Costello of the jungle. Rashada Sawan, Keith Bennett, and Robbie Swift get lots of comic menace from the roles of the evil hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed. I suppose they’d be the Three Stooges of the jungle if the Stooges had been carrion eaters.
Mark David Kaplan, an alumnus of the 2nd national “Lion King” tour, is just as terrific as Zazu the horn-billed royal councilor. There’s a clever moment at the end of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” in which the puppet is carried offstage and the actor is left to continue the illusion on his own. It both breaks and reseals the “fourth wall”, and Mr. Kaplan pulls it off flawlessly.
Child actors play the roles of Young Nala and Young Simba. On opening night they were played with great energy by Zavion J. Hill and Kailah McFadden. They alternate with Adante Power and Sade Phillip-Demorcy.
Finally, let me lavish some praise on the singing and dancing chorus. These folks have, in many ways, some of the most challenging jobs in the show since they’re required to operate a variety of different puppets (which, in the case of the giraffes, involves stilt walking) but take on a variety of roles as well. They even get to be humans in “One by One”, the electrifying African dance–inspired number that opens the second act.
Donald Holder’s lighting design, Richard Hudson’s scenery, Garth Fagan’s multi-cultural choreography, and Taymor’s costumes and puppets bring the African setting to vivid life. The score sounds remarkably seamless, considering that it contains music and lyrics not only by Elton John and Tim Rice but also by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, film composer Hans Zimmer, and even Julie Taymor. The book, by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, brilliantly expands on the cinematic original while preserving its most memorable moments.
The substantial battery of African percussion instruments on each side of the stage (played by the versatile Stefan Monssen and Reuven Weizberg) adds a visceral kick to the music. The sound, at least from where we sat 10th row center, was unfortunately less than ideal, with lyrics pretty much incomprehensible in the big ensemble numbers.
If you have yet to make your acquaintance with this extraordinary bucket of brilliance from the seemingly bottomless well of Julie Taymor’s genius, you’ll certainly want to do so. And feel free to take the kids. There’s something in it for both youngsters and adults, so it’s the sort of thing the whole family will enjoy. Be aware, however, that at just over two and one-half hours with intermission it’s a fairly long show, so make sure the tykes you bring are old enough to sit through it. Make sure also that they’re mature enough to understand the basic theatre etiquette of staying put and keeping quiet. The adults seated behind you will appreciate it.
“The Lion King” runs through September 2nd at the Fox Theatre in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com or 314-534-1678.