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The Lion King

True story: I know a fourteen-year-old kid. A few months ago, he finally said that one little phrase we all long to hear, "We should see more theatre." I was then faced with the difficult task of recommending a show. Pick the right one and we would be that much closer to creating a lifelong theatre fan; pick the wrong one and it could turn him off to the art form forever. I had what I thought was the obvious solution. "We should take you to see Lion King," I said. "I don't want to see it," he answered. "It's not what you think," I offered. "Does it have people dressed up like lions singing the songs from the movie?" I considered it. "Well, yes, but--" "Then I don't want to see it." No further questions, your honor. Case closed.

I wish he would've let me explain. I wish I had the words to tell him that Lion King is unlike anything he's ever seen on a stage, unlike anything that's ever been on a stage. The Wizard of Oz has a guy "dressed up like a lion." Lion King creates a giraffe by putting a man on four stilts; it fills the theatre with fluttering birds by swinging lightweight models around on the ends of flexible poles; and it creates an entire wildebeest stampede with a combination of dancers, models, and rolling images. The quantity of theatrical techniques used to tell this story is astonishing: multiple actors playing the same character through time; inflatable set pieces; shadow puppets; bringing the performers off the stage; visible musicians; battle through dance; set pieces rising from the ground; a conveyor belt; hand puppets; swinging ropes; aerial dancers --the list goes on. To tell this story, director Julie Taymor uses every trick in the stagecraft book, and adds a few chapters of her own.

Neither the songs nor the plot merely duplicate the movie. The score has been expanded, most notably by the work of Lebo M, who has added glorious African chants and rhythms to the show. Some of the lyrics are sung in African dialects, and no English translation is provided. None is necessary; everything we need to know is in the music and the emotion with which it is sung. Combine the beauty of the storytelling techniques with the spirit of the music, and Lion King is a feast for the eyes and ears. Lion King is a Disney production and it lives up to the name. As each new animal appears onstage in "Circle of Life," adults in the audience gape in wonder like toddlers at their first trip to Disneyland. This show is pure sensory overload.

The production has a huge cast, and the ensemble members portray lions and hyenas with equal effectiveness. The show also depends on a dozen performers to play the name characters who move the plot along, and this is the only place where the Los Angeles production falls off from its otherwise excellent standards. Clifton Oliver plays the teenaged Simba with great physical exuberance, but his singing voice lacks the power of his leaps. Simba's father, Mufasa, is played by Rufus Bonds, Jr., who tries to give Mufasa regal dignity by holding poses and speaking deliberately, but he never really seems to possess the leadership qualities everyone around him says he has. At the opposite end of the scale is Moe Daniels's Nala, whose every step reflects the bearing of someone raised to be queen. Even when Nala is hunting, Daniels's movements have a graceful elegance. And when she sings, "Shadowland," her voice and strength of will reverberate through the theatre. Also worthy of mention is William Akey, as Zazu, the hornbill. The character of Zazu comes into being by a combination of Akey's voice, his skill at manipulating the hornbill puppet, and his own body language. Akey creates a surprisingly expressive character out of that puppet, and he also delivers some of the funniest lines in the show.

There are two notes on where to sit. From the front orchestra, there were some problems hearing the leads over the ensemble and orchestra. In the reprise of "Be Prepared," Scar could not be heard at all. Nonetheless, orchestra seats are far preferable to mezzanine seats, which go for the same price. With many shows, getting an overall view from the mezzanine is just as good as sitting in the orchestra. Not so here. There is a huge difference between sitting above this production, and being surrounded by it. The latter is what Lion King is all about.

I wish I could convince my fourteen-year-old friend to share this experience. But I could not find the words to describe how this production goes beyond anything he expects a musical to be. Dude, this is to musicals what The Matrix is to martial arts movies. Welcome to the next level.

Lion King is currently booking through September 2001 at the Pantages Theatre.

Disney presents The Lion King. Music and lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice; additional music & lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer; book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi; adapted from the screenplay by Irene Mecchi & Jonathan Roberts & Linda Woolverton; scenic design by Richard Hudson; costume design by Julie Taymor; lighting design by Donald Holder; mask & puppet design by Julie Taymor & Michael Curry; sound design by Steve C. Kennedy; hair and makeup design by Michael Ward; casting by Binder Casting/Mark Brandon; associate producers Ken Denison and Pam Young; associate director Jeff Lee; associate choreographer Aubrey Lynch II; technical director John Tiggeloven; production stage manager Ray Gin; music supervisor Joseph Church; music director Colin Welford; orchestrators Robert Elhai and David Metzger; press representative Boneau/Bryan-Brown; music produced for the stage & additional score by Mark Mancina; associate music producer Robert Elhai; additional vocal score, vocal arrangements & choral director Lebo M; choreography by Garth Fagan; directed by Julie Taymor.

Cast:

Rafiki - Fuschia
Mufasa - Rufus Bonds, Jr.
Sarabi - Marvette Williams
Zazu - William Akey
Scar - John Vickery
Young Simba (Wed, Thu, Sat evg., Sun mat.) - Adrian Diamond
Young Simba (Tue, Wed mat., Fri, Sat mat., Sun evg.) - KaRonn A. Henderson
Young Nala (Tue, Wed mat., Fri, Sat mat., Sun evg.) - Jazmn
Young Nala (Wed, Thu, Sat evg., Sun mat.) - Lisa Tucker
Shenzi - Carla Renata Williams
Banzai - Jeffrey Polk
Ed - Price Waldman
Timon - Danny Rutigliano
Pumbaa - Bob Bouchard
Simba - Clifton Olive
Nala - Moe Daniels
Ensemble: Nelson M. Cabassa, Darrell Clark II, Keisha Laren Clarke, Tonya L. Dixon, Hassan El-Amin, Bernard Gaddis, Melissa Haizlip, Jennifer Logan, Brian Makiwane, Tabbatha Mays, Ian Vincent McGinnis, Alan Mingo, Jr., Albertina Nkhela, Bongani B. Nxumalo, Stephanie Powell, Cinda RamSeur, Lubabalo Sibindlana, Keena Smith, Marc Cedric Smith, Harrison White, Marvette Williams, Kevin Wilson, Adrian Young.


Also see the 2000-2001 Schedule of Los Angeles Area Theatre.


-- Sharon Perlmutter




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