Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Lion King
The famous "first 15 minutes" of The Lion King are as dazzling as ever. From the moment the Shaman and Royal Counselor Rafiki (played with great depth and passion by Buyi Zama) cries out "Nants ingonyama bagithi baba!" ("Here comes a lion, Father!") to summon the denizens of the Pride Lands to honor the birth of a new royal cub, the Orpheum is transformed into a scene of breathtaking beauty. Is there anything more spectacular, more wonder-inducing than the procession of life-size or near life-size puppetsgiraffes, gazelles, birds, a lumbering hippopotamus, a thirteen-foot-long, nine-foot-wide elephant (manipulated by four actors), a flock of white birds, and, of course, a full pride of stately lionsmaking their way from the back of the house, down the aisles, to the center of the stage? The gorgeous harmonies of the South African choral music that accompany Elton John's pop-rock "The Circle of Life," the pink light streaming over the sculpted head-masks of the lionesses, and the giant, swirling butterflies combine to create an exquisite moving painting. If you are 20, 60, or 90, you will find yourself a child again.
"The circle of life," the play's central trope, suggests the life cycle of birth, maturity and death, cycles of seasons, of the ecological order, as well as the community-sustaining cycle of formal rites and rituals. The show's return to the city where it was first developed in 1997 has a ritual feel as well. There is something of ours, I felt, of our own community, in the play.
Unusually, Disney used an original story rather than a classic fairy tale or children's book as the basis for its 1994 animated film. Julie Taymor, the play's creator, added very few changes to the fairly standard narrative, an archetypal hero's journey (a la Joseph Campbell) with plot and character configurations from Shakespeare's Hamlet thrown in for good measure. Simba, the lion king Mufasa's son and heir apparent, begins his life as a rambunctious cub playfully defying his father's warnings not to venture outside the boundaries of the Pride Lands. He is soon manipulated by his Uncle Scar, the king's brother and the play's Claudius, into a scheme which leads to Mufasa's death and Simba's banishment.
From this point on, the play follows an archetypal pattern of exile, self-delusion, self-realization, the hero's acceptance of obligations, and then return, trial and triumph. I had expected to enjoy The Lion King's rich musical tapestry, the gymnastic dance sequences, the marvelous puppetry and special effects, but I was surprised to find contemporary relevance in it as well.
I saw the show just after the horrible events of Falcon Heights and Baton Rouge. As younger audience members squealed at the antics of Timon and Pumbaa, and squeezed well-worn Simba stuffed animals whenever the character appeared, the mood among adults in the audience seemed somewhat somber. It was understandably hard, and it felt wrong somehow, to participate in the joyous or humorous moments in the musical. And yet I found the show surprisingly receptive to both of these dual energies. If one of the salient features of a classic is that you can return to it again and again and discover new or previously unrecognized themes or layers of meaning in it, then The Lion King qualifies as a classic. On that night, the mourning song chanted after the death of Mufasa ("Nao Tse Tsa," sung brilliantly by Buyi Zama as Rafiki) seemed to resonate powerfully with the mood and circumstances of the moment, as did the rhapsodical lyrics of "Shadowland": "My land /Tear-stained/ Dry-land." I sensed that many in the audience were, like myself, deeply affected by the powerful expressions of communal sorrow embedded in the musical.
Of course, the children in the audience were blissfully oblivious to these dimensions. To the contrary, like the tens of thousands of children before them, they watched the show with palpable delight. I saw kids gasp at the 14-foot tall giraffe puppets, mouth the words to "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," jump out of their seats to cheer Timon when he sang "Hakuna Matata," and laugh hysterically at Pumbaa's flatulence. Watching their eyes widen with anticipation, their faces beam with unrestrained joy, accomplished a great deal of healing, not only for the parents and grandparents who accompanied them, but, I suspect, for all the adults in the house.
It's worth noting that among all her other talents, Julie Taymor has a particular genius for children's theater. It seems to have been part of her original design to encourage active imaginative engagement (rather than passive reception) on the part of her intended viewers. Eschewing literalism in favor of the abstract and conceptual, Taymor compels her young audience to participate in shaping the scenes, the characters, and their emotions, such that they become co-creators.
As usual with shows at the Orpheum, the production values are excellent. The one exception for this production is the sound. At the performance I attended, at least, the orchestra occasionally drowned out the voices of some of the actors, especially that of young Simba (B J Covington and Julian Rivera-Summerville). The entire cast is terrific and they do superb ensemble work. In addition to Buyi Zama's Rafiki, standouts include Patrick Brown's Scar, whose performance comes across as a splendid cross between Addison DeWitt from All About Eve and Captain Jack from Pirates of the Caribbean. Clearly a veteran of children's theater, Brown takes care not to scare the younger viewers by balancing Scar's darker emotions with high camp and whimsy. Nick Cordileone (Timon) and Robbie Swift (Pumbaa) are such comedy pros and partner so well that they make even more hackneyed jokes and cringe-inducing puns fresh and hilarious.
When the show first opened, Taymor was praised for blending cultural influences and combining new and traditional formsstill something of a departure for Disney shows in 1997. She had hired the South African musician and composer Lebo M, along with Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Hans Zimmer, to write additional music and lyrics. A range of African musical genres alternate and sometimes overlay the pop musical score Elton John and Tim Rice wrote for the movie. Taymor designed the masks and puppets with Michael Curry, drawing on traditions from Africa, Indonesia, and Japan (Bunraku), and the result is magnificent.
Pride Rock and other masterful set pieces by Richard Hudson still impress after all these years. Hudson and lighting designer Donald Holder collaborate brilliantly to evoke the varied landscapes of the African Plains: we see the watercolor pinks and golds of the Savannah, the sinister grays of the dry lands, and the broken sunlight strewn over the green richness of the jungle. The central image is the enormous blood red sun that rises in the background in the show's opening scene and returns in full splendor at its closewhen Simba (Aaron Nelson) and Nala (Nia Holloway) raise their newborn cub and future king, up to viewto the enchantment of first-time viewers and the re-enchantment of those of us who have been visited the Pride Lands once, twice, or even thrice, before.
Disney's The Lion King, through August 7, 2016, at the Orpheum Theatre, 805 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. For more information and tickets, call the box office at (866) 276-4884, or visit through HennepinTheatreTrust.org. A Sensory-Friendly performance of The Lion King will take place on July 30th at 2:00 pm. For more information on the tour, visit www.lionking.com/tour.
Directed by Julie Taymor