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"As the adult Simba, Jason Raize was ideally cast and possesses one of the most handsome and compelling faces I've seen on stage in recent years."
--Charleston Post and Courier review of The Lion King









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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review of The Lion King

The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
'The Lion King' Musical a Breakthrough on Stage
by Dottie Ashley
June 14, 1998




To see "The Lion King," winner of the 1998 Tony Award for Best Musical, is not only to witness a groundbreaking combination of music, scenery and puppeteering, but also to be made aware that every living being, from the largest elephant to the smallest bird, is connected in some way.

Most of all, the 52nd Tony Awards will forever have the distinction of naming "The Lion King's" director Julie Taymor as the first woman to win the Tony for director of a musical. She also won for her breakthrough costume design, which called for the actors in the 48-member cast to be not only singers and dancers, but also expert puppeteers.

It should be said that all the fuss about "The Lion King" does not involve its book, its acting or its music - after all, "Ragtime," won the Tony for Best Orchestration. Rather, "The Lion King" is about the totality of visual impact that is unlike any to have ever been staged in the American theater.

It cannot be compared to "Phantom of the Opera" with its crashing chandelier, nor "Cats" with its two-dimensional junkyard, nor "Miss Saigon" with its helicopter landing. "The Lion King" is a total original, whether or not you agree with all the attending Disney hype.

I was seated on the aisle, and as the show opened, suddenly I sensed a mysterious presence beside me: It was an "elephant," 13 feet tall and 9 feet wide, being manipulated by actors inside its massive, partially transparent structure, as it trundled slowly down to the stage.

After I got over the shock of having the huge creature's ear lightly brush my face, I became mesmerized by the parade, which included 25 kinds of animals, birds, fish and insects. My favorites were the 16-foot-high giraffes.

This fascinating combination of the ancient Greek tradition of using masks, combined with Japanese Noh and the comedic, cartoonish figure of a warthog dancing, forces one to use each of the senses to fully comprehend it all.

To prepare for "The Lion King," Taymor went to the Indonesian island of Bali and studied theater arts, including masked dramas, rod puppets and shadow puppet plays. In the colorful tableaux, performers utilize a wide array of masks and puppet techniques to portray the story's 13 principal characters, as well as dozens of supporting animals. What is so interesting is that you can actually see the human actors who control the animals, causing a blurring of illusion and reality.

The story tells of the epic adventures of a young lion cub, Simba, as he struggles to accept the responsibilities of adulthood and his destined role as king. Unfortunately, young Simba falls under the adverse influence of his evil uncle, Scar, his father's jealous half-brother who wants the throne for himself.

Because of Scar's misdirection, Simba makes foolish mistakes and winds up in a place he has been ordered by his father, Mufasa, never to go - the elephant graveyard inhabited by ferocious hyenas. When his appointed guardian, the bird Zazu, a kind of a feathered nanny, flies to tell Simba's parents that he is surrounded by hyenas, Simba's father comes to rescue his son and is trampled to death in a stampede.

Scar warns the young Simba that he will be blamed for his father's death and causes Simba to run further into the jungle until, nearly dying, he is rescued by a warthog called Pumbaa and Timon, a meerkat. The two take him to a kind of skewed Elysian Fields, where "Hakuna Matata," which is Swahili for "no worries," is the motto. In this place, animals romp aimlessly among enormous, brilliantly colored flowers.

But finally, Simba grows up and decides to return to his home.

As in the film, the stage version deals with Mufasa's death, and the laws of the jungle, including the fact that lions do eat warthogs, something that Pumbaa points out to Simba.

Although not designed to be a children's musical, "The Lion King" is one of the few Broadway shows that they can appreciate. The 10-year-old boy who sat by me and his sister, about age 6, were as quiet as mice during the two-hour show. Afterward, he told me that he "loved all of it."

However, I would not advise taking a child younger than age 5, since they could become restless.

The savage law of the jungle is never glossed over, and the reality of death is in plain view. Yet the blades of grass that "grow" and then are supported by the heads of people who rise from the earth send the message of rebirth and renewal, as Mufasa says to Simba: "The sun will set on my time here, and will rise with you."

Most of all, the musical, with book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, transports the popular Disney cartoon to loftier heights. Certainly, this is in no way an attempt to replicate the film, but instead is a three-dimensional exploration of our purpose on Earth.

Eight new musical numbers were added to the five songs used in the movie. Music and lyrics for the film were by Elton John and Tim Rice, with additional music written for the stage by Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin.

It was great to see Samuel E. Wright, whom I had seen in the 1980s in "The Tap Dance Kid," in the role of King Mufasa. His face, reflecting power and compassion, has gained even more in character through the years. Scott Irby-Ranniar was commendable as Young Simba, although at times he was a little too sitcom cutesy. As the adult Simba, Jason Raize was ideally cast and possesses one of the most handsome and compelling faces I've seen on stage in recent years. I can't compare his stage presence with that of anyone other than, perhaps, James Naughton in "Chicago," or Peter Gallagher in the revival of "Guys and Dolls."

John Vickery was appropriately mean-spirited and twisted as Scar, and Geoff Hoyle was a hoot as Zazu. Tom Alan Robins was perfect as the bumbling Pumbaa, as was Max Casella as the more intelligent Timon.

How ironic and exhilarating that this lovely and dangerous animal kingdom is the most human show on Broadway.

Also, at Sunday's awards, "The Lion King" won Tonys for choreography by Garth Fagan, lighting design by Donald Holder and set design by Richard Hudson.

Mane event

Tickets range from $25 to $75. To order, call 212-307-4747 or 800-439-9000. Tickets are on sale through 1999, with much of 1998 already sold out, although isolated seats can always become available.

NEW AMSTERDAM

Another major reason to see "The Lion King" is the magnificent New Amsterdam Theatre at 214 West 42nd St., whose sign now declares it "The New 42nd St." Built in 1903, the New Amsterdam was the original home of the Ziegfeld Follies from 1913 through 1927. During that time, many stars of the stage and screen performed there, among them Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Fred Astaire, Jack Benny and Bob Hope.

Long considered the crown jewel of Broadway's theaters, its proscenium arch is 40 feet wide by 36 feet high and ornamented with 16 plaster peacocks entwined with vines.

The Walt Disney Company has had it renovated to the tune of $1.5 million with a dozen plaster relief panels, including five Shakespearean scenes and five panels from Wagner's operas. In the reception room or lobby are inlaid oak carvings of 38 heads of famous "Lovers of Historical Drama."

Appropriately, the balustrades of the staircases have castings that include the animals of La Fontaine, Aesop and Hans Christian Anderson.

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