The incredibly successful stage adaptation of Disney's animated film The Lion King seems unstoppable. In the 1997-98 Broadway season, The Lion King opened with a huge splash, won six Tony Awards, and has stayed on top as it continues into its sixth sold out season. Many factors contributed to this success, chief of which were the source material of, until recently, the highest grossing animated film in U.S. history, the music of pop superstar Elton John, and the coup of hiring the ultra-talented designer/director Julie Taymor. The superb costume and scenic designs of Taymor and Richard Hudson, respectively, are what prevent this production from being a theme park show. The inventive, beautiful, and culturally befitting creations that adorn The Lion King allow it to be a unique and admirable stage production.
The well known story of lion cub king-to-be Simba and his struggle with self-doubt and responsibility is a worthy basis for the show. The film version seems to be more solid, plotwise, with the changes made for the stage version resulting in several slow periods that cause the audience to fidget for a few minutes. Similarly, some of the songs added are not as memorable as the original film tunes, with the exception of "He Lives in You." But there is so much eye candy in this show, any lapses are quickly forgotten as a new scene or herd of animals is revealed. Additional material that is welcome, however, is the African music, chanting and dancing that enrich the exotic atmosphere the designers have created and allow us to more deeply appreciate the culture of the setting.
An enormous amount of talent is required to pull off such well designed plans, and the cast and musicians who perform in the current touring version are up to that task, starting with the very engaging Rydell Rollins as Young Simba, partnered with powerhouse Aryn Mikala Spry as Young Nala (ready for Dreamgirls, the junior version). Simba's father Mufasa is regally played by Thomas Corey Robinson, and Dan Donohue gives a wonderfully stand out, and slightly campy, performance as the cowardly and dastardly Scar. Futhi Mhlongo is a narrator of sorts as the wise Rafiki; she is delightful and expressive, communicating well with the audience without speaking English.
Everyone's favorite sidekicks, Timon and Pumbaa, arrive late in the first act, to the audible delight of the children in the audience. As the wise-cracking meerkat, John Plumpis is very good, but it is the ingenious costuming that allows an actor to be bright green and yet disappear as the cartoonish puppet Timon comes to life. Mark Cameron Pow delivers a properly dim and loveable warthog in Pumbaa via another clever costume. These two characters do not take over the show as they do in the animated film, but stay slightly more in the background, and this works better on stage. The scene-stealer in this version is the ever present bird Zazu as played by Mark Cameron Pow. Pow's ebullience and puppeting skills are very impressive, and he creates the most vivid character in the production.
The older Simba is played by Alan Mingo, Jr., who is slightly over-eager in the part, but his singing is amazing. His Nala, Lisa Nicole Wilkerson, is strong and confident, with a lovely voice. Supporting players do a fine job as hyenas and lions. The ensemble members are the ones who get the most "oohs" and "ahs" as they parade as proud and graceful animals in the stunning costumes created by Taymor. As you probably have heard, the first number, "The Circle of Life," is truly awe-inspiring as the theater fills with animals and birds to the solid African beat of this well known anthem.
The solid orchestra and beautiful lighting also contribute to this fun package, and special note must be made of the entertaining "dueling percussionists" who play many instruments and add a nice touch: Peter Korpela and Stefan Monssen.
It's true that, in The Lion King, substance takes a backseat to spectacle; however, this is not gratuitous spectacle, but rich visual design. The Lion King, at the Benedum Center through February 15. For more information, call 412-456-4800 or visit pgharts.org
Disney presents The Lion King. Music and Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice. Additional Music and Lyrics by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, Hans Zimmer. Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi. Adapted from the screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. Directed by Julie Taymor. Scenic Design: Richard Hudson. Costume Design: Julie Taymor. Choreography by Garth Fagan. Lighting Design: Donald Holder. Mask and Puppet Design: Julie Taymor and Michael Curry.