As "The Lion King"
opens, the shaman baboon Rafiki, alone on
stage, begins a Zulu chant, waving and
pounding her long staff. The
shapes of two or three giraffes move
across the back as a giant golden
sun rises against an orange sky.
Then, with an ever-quickening pace, the
whole auditorium of the New
Amsterdam Theatre seems to fill with
animals - zebras, giraffes,
gazelles, antelopes, lions - and soaring
birds. An elephant comes down
one aisle as a rhinoceros comes down
another. Crowding onstage, they
pay homage to the lion king Mufasa, his
queen Sarabi and his baby heir,
Simba, high above on the jutting prow of
It is an overwhelming opening, full of
surprise and delight, thanks to
the incredible ingenuity of director Julie
Taymor, who with Michael
Curry designed the costumes and puppets
that turn people into animals.
One actor pushes a kind of gazelle
machine, a wheeled contraption on
which nine or 10 - or a whole herd - leap.
Actors' faces peer out from
the base of the giraffes' necks, their
hands and feet manipulating the
stiltlike legs. Mufasa and the other lions
wear life-size masks above
their faces. In a wonderful duality of
vision, you see both the human
and the animal.
This stage version of Disney's popular
animated film is a triumph for
Taymor, who combines Eastern puppet
techniques with her own
extraordinary skill and whose imagination
never flags. All the things
from the film that you thought could not
be done on a stage - the
menacing hordes of hyenas, the wildebeest
stampede, Mufasa's fall to
his death and his later appearance in the
sky to his son - happen.
Waterfalls and grasslands, desert and
elephant graveyard - all are
there. This is a whole world, teeming with
life, constantly surprising
you with its breathtaking vision.
Under it, of course, is still the cartoon
story, and the pop-rock candy
music by Elton John and Tim Rice. "The
Lion King" is one of Disney's
better movies, however, with its story of
a prince overburdened by
guilt at his father's death, who then gets
revenge and restores the
kingdom (a "Hamlet" with a happy ending).
What's more, Taymor has turned the story
into an African folk myth in
which its patriarchism seems less blatant.
At the opening of Act II,
the chorus enters in bright-colored robes,
singing "One by One," a song
by Lebo M. originally written for his CD
"Rhythm of the Pride Lands."
Four songs from that album, inspired by
"The Lion King" and drawing on
Lebo M.'s South African tribal background,
have been added to the stage
score. The close harmonies and African
rhythms give a new feel to the
score, although Nala's song,
"Shadowlands," goes on too long.
Taymor has assembled an excellent cast,
especially Scott Irby-Ranniar
as a rambunctious young Simba and Kajuana
Shuford as young Nala; and
Jason Raize as a vivid grown-up Simba and
Heather Headley as a cool and
serene Nala. John Vickery makes a suitably
hollow and villainous Scar,
and Samuel E. Wright a generous Mufasa.
Taymor has beefed up Nala's
role, making her the object of Scar's lust
for an heir of his own.
The comic characters, too, are excellent,
especially Max Casella,
completely in green, who vanishes behind
the Timon puppet and gives it
life. Tom Alan Robbins wears the shape of
Pumbaa, peering from behind
the warthog's huge cartoon snout. But you
see them as whole creatures,
not men with puppets.
If you liked the film of "The Lion King,"
you will not be disappointed
by the Broadway musical. And if you have
not been a Disney fan, you
will be knocked out by this transformation
of an animated film to a
live theater piece.