Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The stage adaptation closely follows the animated film by the same name. Simba, the son of King Mufasa, abandons his future place as master of the African pridelands when he blames himself for his father's death (though it's really caused by his uncle Scar). With the help of both new and old friends, the grown Simba embarks on a quest to win back his rightful place as king and restore order and balance to his embattled homeland.
When The Lion King won the Tony Award for Best Musical over Ragtime in 1998, the argument was that the design and directorial visuals were rewarded over the actual story and songs (for which Ragtime was stronger and won those related Tonys). Time hasn't done much to change that argument. The show's success is primarily due to Julie Taymor. As director, as well as co-creator of the inventive costumes, she executes an environmental concept that is stunning. Masks and puppets are used to represent the animal characters but don't hide the faces of the performers, thus allowing both the animal characteristics and the human expressions to be displayed. These masks and many variations of puppets (including shadow puppets) are by Ms. Taymor and mask/puppet co-designer Michael Curry.
As director, Taymor sustains an appropriate tone true to the piece's African setting by using native materials in the show's design, having some songs performed in African languages, and maintaining a respect for the culture that's evident throughout. Her staging of several scenes, including the extraordinary opening sequence, the wildebeest stampede, and "He Lives in You" is brilliant. There are, however, numerous times where songs seem unnecessarily overextended and a few scenes that feel extraneousan excuse to show off more eye-popping creations. They add little in the way of content and make for inefficient and drawn-out storytelling.
Along with the superb costumes, the scenic design by Richard Hudson and lighting by Donald Holder are likewise perfectly suited for the story and remarkably rendered. Vibrant colors, picturesque stage images (including the dazzling sunrise), a multi-layered canyon, and the eerie shadows of the elephant graveyard are only a few of their wonderful accomplishments. Unique and culturally apt choreography by Garth Fagan also benefits the production.
However, these stylistic achievements are necessary in order to compensate for a show that is lightweight in terms of plot and songs. The book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi is faithful to the film and keeps much of its dialogue. However, with so many key characters, the story is spread quite thin, resulting in none of them being adequately developed. Except for the scenes dealing with the relationship between Simba and Mufasa, there's little to involve the audience emotionally. The songs from the film by Elton John and Tim Rice are present, along with new ones by that duo and others by a group of writers including Lebo M and Hans Zimmer. Of the tunes from the animated version, "The Circle of Life" and "Hakuna Matata" are the best, but "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" and "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" seem too simplistic on stage. The new John/Rice tunes are only serviceable ("Chow Down" is especially lacking). Two new numbers written by the others for the stage are the musical highlights of the show. "They Live In You" and "Endless Night" give the score welcome sparks of passion.
This touring production incorporates an impressively large cast, and they give great performances throughout. Gerald Ramsey conveys warmth and fatherly care as Mufasa, and sings very well. Patrick R. Brown is a drolly sarcastic and menacing Scar. Mukelisiwe Goba has lots of fun as Rafiki, the wise baboon. As grown-up Simba, Aaron Nelson captures the enthusiastic longings of a fish-out-of-water lion and is an impressive singer. Nia Holloway skillfully captures Nala's strength and oppression. Drew Hirschfield (Zazu), Nick Cordileone (Timon), and Ben Lipitz (Pumbaa) are skilled manipulators of their puppets and also sing well and display fine comic timing.
Like previous visits to Dayton and Cincinnati, The Lion King remains a show with much to enjoy, with visual delights around every corner in this production. The imaginative and expert design, inspired direction, and impressive cast are breathtaking, and do much to make up for a story and score that don't reach that same high level of excellence.
The Lion King continues at the Schuster Center in Dayton through July 3, 2016. Tickets can be ordered by calling 937-228-3630. For more information on the tour, visit www.lionking.com.