Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The stage version of The Lion King closely follows the animated film by the same name. Simba, the son of King Mufasa, abandons his future place as king of the African pridelands because 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 now grown Simba embarks on a quest to win back his rightful place and to restore order and dignity to his homeland.
In 1998, The Lion King won six Tony Awards, including a somewhat controversial win as Best Musical over Ragtime. The success of the show rests primarily on the work of Julie Taymor. As director, as well as creator of the ingenious costumes for the show, she created an environmental concept that is visually stunning. Masks and puppets are used to represent the animal characters, but they never hide the faces of the 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 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 artistically awe-inspiring opening scene, the wildebeest stampede, and "He Lives in You" is sheer brilliance. There are, however, times when songs or dance breaks seem unnecessarily overextended, and a few scenes appear merely to be an excuse to show off more eye-popping creations, including several of the shadow puppet sequences.
Along with the wonderful costumes, the scenic design by Richard Hudson and lighting by Donald Holder are likewise perfectly suited for the story, remarkably varied, 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 songs from the animated version, "The Circle of Life" and "Hakuna Matata" are the best, while "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" seems too syrupy-sweet. The John/Rice songs written for the stage production are only serviceable ("Chow Down" and "Be Prepared" are especially lacking). 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.
As usual, the tour of The Lion King incorporates an impressively large cast, and each performer supplies an outstanding performance. Gerald Ramsey provides Mufasa with the regal manner of a wise king and the loving warmth of a father, and he sings very well. Spencer Plachy is an appropriately sarcastic Scar, playing down the scarier tendencies of the role when compared to previous performers in the role. Buyi Zama started the reviewed performance as Rafiki, but was replaced half way through act one by Mukelisiwe Goba. Both actresses provide clear, fun, and powerful vocals as the eccentric, wise baboon. As grown-up Simba, Brandon A. McCall conveys both the enthusiasm and inner turmoil of his character and is an impressive singer. Kayla Cyphers skillfully captures Nala's strength and desperation. Walter Russell III (Young Simba) and Celina Smith (Young Nala) display spunk and strong singing in the juvenile roles they share with other touring performers.
There are a number of characters that exist mainly to provide comedy relief. Not only are Jurgen Hooper (Zazu), understudy Robb Sapp (Timon), and Ben Lipitz (Pumbaa) skilled manipulators of their puppets, but they also sing well and display fine comic timing. Keith Bennett, Robbie Swift and Martina Sykes induce laughs as the three main hyenas.
James Dodgson leads a wonderful sounding orchestra.
As always, there is much to enjoy with The Lion King, with visually inventive delights around every corner and new things to catch with each viewing. The imaginative and expert design, inspired direction, and impressive cast seen on stage are breathtaking, and easily make up for a somewhat lackluster story and score.
The Lion King runs through February 2, 2020, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-621-2787 or visit www.cincinnatiarts.org/aronoff-center. For more information on the tour, visit www.lionking.com/tour/.