By HOLLY BERETTO
When the curtain came down on Disney’s The Lion King at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, the applause and catcalls nearly took the roof off the building. But then, consider what came before that moment.
What is possibly the best opening number ever started the evening, the procession of animals – in this case, actors and dancers with puppet extensions of birds, rhinos and giraffes – parading down the aisles and up onto the stage, singing tribute to the “Circle of Life” that celebrates the birth and anointing of Simba, the newborn lion king. This is director/costume designer and mask/puppet co-designer Julie Taymor’s big moment, and the striking stylization of people-as-animals, up against impressive lighting (Donald Holder) and scenic (Richard Hudson) design is what makes the show something worth seeing and sharing.
Anyone with children under 10 (or who had children under 10 in 1994, when the animated feature hit movie theaters across the world) knows the story: Wise Lion King Mufasa and his wife Sarabi have a son, Simba, who will inherit the kingdom of Pride Rock. Mufasa’s younger brother Scar, who was second in the line of succession, finds himself pushed to the side in favor of the new prince, and schemes with a pack of hyenas to kill his brother and nephew, taking over the kingdom. He manages to kill Mufasa, convinces the young Simba to run away and assumes the throne. What was once an idyllic kingdom goes downhill, and only through Simba’s painful coming-of-age and return can balance be restored. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare will recognize this.
Onstage, what was a cute feature film takes on impressive scope and vision. The African tribal music, which the movie always treated as beautiful background and accent, here rises to carry the show along, the chants and choreography both celebratory and mournful by turns. Understudy Ntomb’khona Dlamini’s Rafiki, a wise shaman of a baboon, leads the pack here, her vocalizing rising to the rafters. She’s backed by a fantastic chorus that offer incredible harmonies on the show’s big theme, “The Circle of Life” and act two’s reprise of “He Lives in You,” a new song composed for the stage.
All the favorite numbers from the movie make an appearance: “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” Young Simba’s fantasy of all he’ll do when he’s in charge, and “Hakuna Matata,” that celebration of no worries and a problem-free existence; “Be Prepared,” Scar’s dark and dangerous layout of his power grab, and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the lion love theme. And they all mostly work. The newer additions are hit or miss. “Shadowland,” sung by Nala, Simba’s gal pal-cum-girlfriend, is an almost operatic piece of hope and questing, and Nokubonga Khuzwayo knocks it out of the park. The trio of hyenas (Banzai, Shenzi and Ed) offer up “Chow Down,” which is mostly unnecessary, and “They Live in You,” Mufasa’s teaching moment to his son in act one is soaring and symbolic.
It’s difficult, of course, to convince yourself that you’re watching something entirely new here. The book, written by Irene Mecchi, keeps nearly all of the film’s dialogue and story progression, and the additions either work tremendously well (see above with the “They Live in You” scene) or feel like killing time till the next production number. On the other hand, some of the most beautiful things about the film were those quiet moments of transition under which Hans Zimmer’s score moved the story along so seamlessly. And those are remarkably preserved here, thanks to the stunning lighting that really feels like an African savanna and brilliant puppetry.
The cast does a terrific job of manipulating wild animal limbs and masks in addition to singing and dancing. J. Anthony Crane’s Scar is appropriately creepy, the pairing of Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz as Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat and warthog who befriend the exiled Young Simba, are over-the-top funny and Dionne Randolph’s Mufasa is strong and strident.
The original music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice are crowd pleasers, and the newer numbers, with music and lyrics by the team of Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer, giving the piece some further scope.
The bottom line, though, is that The Lion King is gorgeous to watch. Things that were campy and bordering on ridiculous in the film aren’t rendered sudden masterpieces here. Some of the campier moments (“Hakuna Matata” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” in particular) seem almost out of place amid the abstract styling of the larger whole. The characters aren’t any more developed here than they were on screen.
But you’ll forgive all of that amid the enveloping beauty. For this is a show that surrounds you, from the opening parade to the drummers in the theater boxes to the ensemble members in the balconies waving poles portraying birds in flight. It’s an explosion of color, of art come alive. Which is truly why the audience nearly takes the roof off the building at the end. When you’ve made that journey, too, I defy you to stay seated.
Photos by Joan Marcus