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Chicago by John Olson

The Lion King
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's review of The Mystery of Irma Vep Richard's review of Night and Day

The Lion King
Brenda Mhlongo
The familiar line drawing of a lion's head against a gold background is back up on the marquee, and the background color is appropriate enough. The Lion King remains the gold standard in family-friendly big musicals, and Disney's team has populated the national tour with a marvelous cast that keeps it as fresh as ever. It's a production to be admired not just for its scale (immense) but even more for the ingenious visualization of an African animal kingdom devised by its director and designer Julie Taymor. One could spend hours just looking at her costumes as well as the puppets and masks she designed in collaboration with Michael Curry. There really ought to be a separate exhibit of them. The humanoid cheetah, the giraffe suit for an actor perched on stilts midway up a 12-foot high (or so) costume are wondrous things, as is the elephant—as majestic in its own way as the real thing. The stampede of the wildebeests—created through a flywheel of stick figures along with costumed dancers downstage—continues to amaze. Set amidst the set designs of Richard Hudson and the lighting by Donald Holder, this is stagecraft of the highest degree.

None of this is news to many theatergoers of the past decade, except maybe to provide reassurance that the production values of the show haven't been compromised. Even those who have seen The Lion King many times may want to return to catch this cast, as sharp, talented and energetic as an opening cast on Broadway. The first character we see, as fans of the show will remember, is the baboon narrator Rafiki. She's played here by Brenda Mhlongo, a South African performer who has appeared in the show in Germany, South Africa and on Broadway. Mhlongo brings electric vocals and complete authority to the wise Rafiki. At the performance I attended, Kolton Stewart played young Simba (he alternates with Jerome Stephens, Jr.) and he has the presence, as well as the vocal and dancing ability to keep the audience transfixed throughout the first act. He also has a smile that must radiate all the way up to the balcony. When the athletic Adam Jacobs (the Marius of the recent revival of Les Miserables on Broadway) swings onto the stage as the older Simba at the end of that act, we know our fascination with the character will continue. Jacobs has a brawny sweetness that's perfect for a young King and a pop-infused vocal style that suits the score.

The character roles are in great hands as well. Nick Cordileone, a veteran of top regional theaters throughout the U.S. is a cheeky Timon, giving the meercat a cartoonish voice that would have impressed Mel Blanc himself. His partner Pumbaa the warthog is played jovially by Ben Lipitz, who recently did the role on Broadway. J. Anthony Crane is snarly and villainous as Scar while the bird Zazu is in the capable hands of Tony Freeman, who remains fresh even after having played the part some 2,500 times over the past ten years. Dionne Randolph brings a big voice and regal authority to Simba's father, Mufasa; and Syndee Winters has a special feminine strength as the older Nala.

The venerable success of this show is earned on many levels. Its integration of South-African musical conventions with Elton John and Tim Rice's ever-catchy pop tunes make the score one of the best of the past several decades. The additional music composed by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Hans Zimmer not only establishes the story's locale but also provides accompaniment for the spectacularly performed choreography of Garth Fagan. The book is children's theater, but of the highest quality, and admirably delivers a message about sustaining the Earth's eco-systems.

The Lion King may be the best meeting ever of art and commerce, and its success is both good for the art and good for the commerce. A return visit to this show is a reminder of the reasons producers have stuck by Ms. Taymor and her vision for the upcoming Spiderman: Turn off the Dark. Regardless of how that new Broadway show turns out, let the world keep coming to The Lion King. It will introduce kids and maybe their parents to the art of theater and reward stage craftsmen and performers for pursuing their crafts at so high a level.

The Lion King will play the Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago, through November 27, 2010. Ticket information is available online at www.broadwayinchicago.com, by phone at 800-775-2000 and through Ticketmaster. For more information on the tour, visit disney.go.com/theatre/thelionking/tour/.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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