By Frank Scheck
When it was announced that Disney had hired Julie Taymor, previously best known for her off-Broadway puppet tale “Juan Darien,” to direct its upcoming big-budget Broadway production of “The Lion King,” eyebrows were raised. Would the Obie winner’s avant-garde sensibility and iconoclastic style mesh with the Disney corporate approach and populist orientation?
Well, the results are now in, and it can be reported that the gamble has paid off triumphantly. “The Lion King” is a spectacular rendition of the animated film, a brilliant theatrical adaptation that stands on its own. It should fill the beautifully restored New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street for many years to come, and will no doubt prove a commercial juggernaut on the road as well.
Taymor has risen to the challenge of adapting an animated tale populated by every beast in the jungle with magnificent skill, translating the physically complex tale to the stage with an endlessly clever, visually stunning use of masks, puppetry, costumes and scenic effects. From the amazing opening number, “Circle of Life” — which actually manages to equal the power of the film version — to the finale, the stage show has the delighted audience firmly in its grip.
Unlike the stage version of “Beauty and the Beast,” a much more prosaic adaptation, Taymor’s “The Lion King” reconceptualizes the original film in ways that will delight adult audiences, while at the same time remaining faithful enough in its basic elements to please younger fans. Although a bit attenuated — some children may get restless during its running time of two hours and 45 minutes — the show is well-paced and consistently exciting. Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi’s book also demonstrates a winning sense of humor, with several audience-pleasing jokes at Disney’s own expense.
In relating the tale of Simba, the lion cub who must fight his villainous uncle, Scar, to regain his kingdom after the murder of his beloved father, King Mufasa, Taymor — along with her mask and puppetry design partner, Michael Curry — uses and expands on many of the same puppetry techniques showcased in “Juan Darien.” Many of the characters are evoked by the use of masks situated over the performers’ heads, a technique that effectively conveys the various animal characteristics while at the same time allowing the actors to perform relatively unobstructed. Puppets — of the miniature, larger-than-life and shadow variety — are also employed to great effect.
The opening number — featuring elephants, giraffes, rhinos and leaping antelope, among many others — is a stunner. The animal creations burst onto the stage and also proceed down the aisles of the theater, enveloping the audience from all sides. Taymor’s theatrical ingenuity is demonstrated time and time again, particularly in such challenging scenes as the wildebeest stampede that threatens Simba and Timon’s precipitous plunge down a waterfall. The techniques she employs are simple yet ingenious — when some lions shed tears, for example, the effect is conveyed by pulling strings of cloth from their eyes — and nearly without exception they work beautifully.
All the beloved characters are here, embodied by a cast whose physical exertions are as notable as their acting ability. Samuel E. Wright plays Mufasa with exactly the right combination of nobility and gentle humor, while John Vickery is marvelously snide and stylish as Scar. Geoff Hoyle scores big laughs as the daffy dodo bird Zazu, and 12-year-old Scott Irby-Ranniar and Jason Raize are both very appealing as, respectively, the young and older versions of Simba. Max Casella (you’ll remember him as Vinnie in “Doogie Howser”) brings a terrific Borscht Belt style comic verve to Timon, and Tom Alan Robbins is equally funny as the warthog Pumbaa.
A real standout — and a certain Tony nominee — is Tsidii Le Loka as the mystical Rafiki; her rendition of the soaring number “He Lives in You” (one of the most beautifully staged numbers in the show) is stunning. The rest of the large ensemble, who beautifully embody everything from animals to grassy plains, will no doubt require much physical therapy to offset their strenuous physical efforts.
The original score by Elton John and Tim Rice — which contains such winners as “Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata,” and, of course, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” — has been retained, with the pair providing three decent but unmemorable new songs for the stage version. Other African-influenced musical numbers, such as the beautiful “He Lives in You,” come from a variety of other contributors, including soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer and, particularly, South African composer Lebo M.
Also contributing to the show’s success are Richard Hudson’s evocative and stylish scenic design and Garth Fagan’s energetic and exciting African-style choreography.