The roar of The Lion King, the ruling member of Disney's growing stage family, can be heard throughout Cincinnati as the national tour of the musical begins its eight week run at the Aronoff Center as the final show in the 2002-2003 Broadway in Cincinnati season. From the second performers on stilts emerge as full-size giraffes in the opening moments of this spectacle, everyone in attendance knows that this is a unique and special piece of theater. The awe-inspiring design, innovative direction, and top-notch performances succeed in bringing this familiar animated tale to life in a rewarding production.
The stage adaptation closely follows the cartoon 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. Scar, Simba's uncle, is actually responsible for Mufasa's demise and is assisted by a group of high-strung hyenas in ruling the kingdom and stripping the land of its resources. With the help of both new and old friends, the grown Simba embarks on a quest to win back his rightful place and to restore order and dignity to his homeland.
The Lion King won six Tony Awards in 1998, including a controversial win as Best Musical over Ragtime. The success of the show rests primarily on the merits of Julie Taymor. As director and creator of the ingenious costumes for the show, she has coordinated and executed an environmental concept that is visually stunning and unlike anything on Broadway before or since. Masks and puppets are used to represent the animal characters, but they never hide the faces of performers, thus allowing both the animal characteristics and the human expressions to be displayed. The mechanical flexibility of Scar's mask and lifelike puppets such as Pumbaa and Zazu are shining examples of the awesome talent of 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 languages of the continent, and maintaining a respect for the culture that is evident throughout. Her staging of several scenes, including the opening sequence, the wildebeest stampede, and "He Lives in You" is sheer brilliance. There are, however, times where a few songs seem unnecessarily overextended and a few scenes appear merely to be an excuse to show off more eye-popping creations.
Along with the wonderful costumes, the scenic design by Richard Hudson and lighting by Donald Holder are likewise perfectly suited for the story and amazingly 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 masterful accomplishments. Appropriate and interesting choreography by Garth Fagan also benefits the production.
Unfortunately, these outstanding visual achievements are needed to compensate for a show that is otherwise lightweight in plot and uneven in score. 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 so thin that none of them are adequately developed. Except for the scenes dealing with the relationship between Simba and Mufasa, there is little to involve the audience emotionally. The songs from the film by Elton John and Tim Rice are present, along with new ones by the 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" seems too syrupy-sweet. The John/Rice tunes written for the stage production are only serviceable. Two new numbers written by the remaining writers are the musical highlights of the show. "They Live In You" and "Endless Night" give the score welcome sparks of passion.
The Lion King incorporates an impressively large cast, and they give uniformly superb performances. Alton Fitzgerald White portrays Mufasa with dignity and nobility and is eloquent in both his speech and his wonderful vocals. Patrick Page is delightfully sinister as Scar, and Fredi Walker-Browne puts her big voice and playful demeanor to good use as Rafiki, the wise baboon. Akil I. LuQman (Young Simba) and Cajai Fellows Johnson (Young Nala) bring the right amount of youthful energy and attitude to their roles.
There are a number of characters that exist mainly to provide comedy relief. Not only do Jeffrey Binder (Zazu), John Plumpis (Timon), and Blake Hammond (Pumbaa) sing capably and provide precise comic timing, but they also manipulate their puppets with remarkable skill. Jacquelyn Renae Hodges, James Brown-Orleans, and Wayne Pyle do well as the three main hyenas, but their roles as written come off more as annoying rather than funny. As the grown Simba and Nala respectively, Josh Tower and Kissy Simmons provide some of the best singing in the show, with Mr. Tower also demonstrating some strong acting in his larger role.
Cincinnati audiences are certain to embrace the presence of The Lion King this spring. The imaginative and expert design, inspired direction, and talented performers seen on stage are breathtaking, and easily make up for a story and score that don't reach that high level of proficiency. The show continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through May 18, 2003. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.