Pros: Costumes, puppetry, music, overall production.
Cons: The magnificent production overshadows the story.
The Disney companies know how to milk a good thing. The stage production of "The Lion King" proves this. Based on the animated feature film, the Broadway production is a fantastic assault on the senses, striking in sight and sound.
The basic story follows the film faithfully. Simba the lion prince must overcome his doubts, fears, and ruthless Uncle Scar, to save his pride from starvation and repression. Fueled by the memories of his murdered father, the love of Nala the proud lioness, and the support of a small band of friends (Timon the meerkat, Pumba the warthog, and Rafiki the wise baboon), Simba overcomes his misgivings and accepts the challenge. As in most Disney productions, the main character experiences growth and learns from his mistakes, triumphing in the end.
Julie Taymor is the talented costume designer and director of the stage production. She exhibits a creativity that was sorely needed to give the Broadway musical theatre a kick in the pants after so many bland seasons. Translation from film to stage must have posed a real challenge - how to present a show that is comprised entirely of animals? Taymor's solution to the problem was to design a series of half-costume half-puppet characters. These creations are the real stars of the show, and it is this aspect that lingers in the mind after the curtain descends.
Simba's father and uncle wear large lion face headdresses. Incredibly, though the faces are immovable, they seem to take on various expressions. The headpieces can move forward, and seen from the side in that position, present the audience with a ferocious view of aroused lions. Those images disappear when the headpieces are upright and facing forward. It's uncanny. Simba's headpiece is smaller, indicating his youth.
There's a lot of variety in the unique costume-puppet combinations. Actors balance on stilts (legs and arms), topped with towering headpieces to create lifelike giraffes. Hyenas appear with the performers' covered heads serving as humped backs, and grotesque puppet heads hanging forward, manipulated by hidden hands. Actors stand upright alongside zebra heads, with their legs becoming the front zebra legs, and back ends of the animals extending behind. The rear legs move naturally with the rest of the body. Similar creativity can be seen in cheetahs, elephants, and rhinos.
Beautiful butterfly and bird puppets extend on strings, soaring through the air as their human performers whip them in wide circles. Other actors carry puppets as their characters: a hornbill, whose puppeteer-actor moves him to different positions, including atop his head; a life size meercat, who is much like those dolls that can attach to your feet and dance with you.
The effect of these costume-puppet combinations is so magnificent that almost nothing else in the show can possibly measure up. That's not to say there aren't other marvelous aspects to this production. There are quite a few.
Most of the wonderful music and lyrics were written by Elton John and Tim Rice, and supplemented by others, including Taymor and Hans Zimmer. The music is a splendid blend of pop songs and African melodies. The tunes from the movie are there: "Circle of Life," "Hakuna Matata," and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" among them. Several new songs were added, the most striking being a hard rock style "Chow Down," sung by the hyenas who trap Simba the lion cub and his friend Nala. This song is both scary and humorous, with clever lyrics ("Now wasn't it her mom who ate your dad? And having parents eaten makes us mad.") In addition, Scar has a new number ("The Madness of King Scar"), as does the young Simba ("Endless Night," a fine representation of the longing and turmoil in the young lion.) In the end, the African numbers shine above the rest, their beautiful lilting melodies and chants setting the tone for the play.
The scenery is a strange mish-mash of styles. In some sequences, it verges on the realistic, while in others, it appears cartoon-like, with intense colors and goofy looking plants. I prefer the former to the latter, because the less realistic scenery interferes with my sense of place; however, I'm sure children prefer the brightly colored representations. Some of the scenery is inspired, such as that during a stampede, where several large cylinders with animal figures turn in the direction of the audience. The cylinders at the back of the stage have small figures, and those forward have larger ones, giving the impression of animals running from a distance and ending up downstage with the actors.
The choreography by Garth Fagan is above average, with stylized numbers representing such activities as lioness hunts, pouncing lessons, stampedes, and physical battles.
The lighting is exceptional, creating many moods effectively. In one scene, tiny lights dance around the sky, eventually combining into the image of Simba's dead father a truly breathtaking sight.
The performances are good nothing more, nothing less. But the performances are really secondary to everything else going on in this play. The sights and sounds are the focal points. Therein lies the main weakness. The story is not what eventually touches the audience. It's the multi-media sensual experience that permeates the performance. Perhaps the story was not strong enough to translate into an entire night of theater. While I cannot deny that I was blown away by this production, I still felt something lacking, and I believe it was due to the overshadowing of a good solid dramatic effect.
And finally, if you think this is a musical play designed with only the kids in mind think again. There is as much, and possibly more, that adults can appreciate in this production. True to Disney form, this production gears some of the dialog to a more adult audience, keeping a good balance between the kiddie stuff and the grown-up material.
Overall, this is a wonderful evening of theater, deserving of the praise it's received.
Thanks for reading this entry in the "When You Wish Upon A Star Write-Off", sponsored by Lisa_J and Opalman, to benefit little Emily Rose, who is fighting a battle with cancer.