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"Simba (portrayed by the gorgeous, golden-skinned Jason Raize) has grown into a beautiful young lion."
--Denver Post review of The Lion King

 



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Sarasota Herald Tribune review of The Lion King

Denver Post (Denver, CO)
Musicals Rock Broadway:
"Ragtime," "King" Heat Up Tony Race

by Sandra Brooks-Dillard, Theater Critic
February 8, 1998




NEW YORK - Broadway theater, already arguably the most prestigious in the world, has taken another leap forward with two ground-breaking musicals: the historical panorama "Ragtime" and the fantastical "The Lion King."

The Tony Awards race just got hot.

While there will be other entries in the best musical category, it's evident that these two shows, which illuminate all the glorious possibilities of live theater, are going to be the ones to beat.

The beautifully conceived "Ragtime," with a powerful story line that kaleidoscopically spans the early decades of the 20th century and engaging music that ranges from syncopated to deeply melodic, has more substance, while the dramatically imaginative "The Lion King" is perhaps the most visually amazing production ever seen on stage.

Both shows are emotionally affecting - "Ragtime" expectedly so, "The Lion King" surprisingly so.

Graced with a truly melodic title song, the epic "Ragtime" is a story of a country's growing pains. In a changing social climate, well-to-do WASPS, gorgeously depicted in pastels and parasols, beleaguered blacks and desperate immigrants begin to cross each other's paths. In a telling, stylized segment, the three groups warily circle one another in tight little segregated clumps. The moment is symbolic of a nation that's changing too fast for some, while moving tragically slowly for others.

"The Lion King," inspired by the popular 1994 Disney cartoon feature of the same name, is an allegory that centers on the adventures and misadventures of a careless young lion cub who finally matures into the far-thinking, inspiring leader his followers need. The bright musical with its amazing masks and puppets, rhythmic African-inspired music and chants, and choreography that mixes African and modern dance and hip-hop, is a story of personal growth. Emotionally satisfying, and a visual feast, "The Lion King," too, is an improvement over the original concept, thanks to director/costumer Julie Taymor's singular imagination. RAGTIME

The most powerful tale in this intertwined trio of stories is that of the tangled relationship between a young black couple, Coalhouse, a ragtime piano player, and Sarah. Brian Stokes Mitchell, an actor blessed with a rich, warm baritone and charismatic presence, is memorable as a man doomed by his (justifiable) pride and anger. And Audra Ann MacDonald is heartbreaking as Sarah, who, after being abandoned, then wooed back by Coalhouse, later dies trying to intercede on his behalf.

Their story is as fascinating as it is tragic, punctuated with songs ranging from the lively "Getting Ready Rag," as Coalhouse prepares to go after Sarah, to the soaring, hopeful "The Wheels of a Dream," an anthem to the future in a country that, as Coalhouse sings, "lets a man like me own a car ... raise a child."

But alas, it is not to be. A gang of firehouse toughs, bigoted Irish immigrants envious of Coalhouse's beautiful new Model-T Ford and his perceived uppitiness, desecrate and destroy the vehicle, and Coalhouse declares he can't marry Sarah until the injustice is righted.

And when Sarah tries to plead for Coalhouse's cause before a visiting president, she is killed by agents fearing an attempted assassination.

The bitterly enraged Coalhouse forms a gang of equally angry young blacks (whose high-collared suits, jaunty derbies and long dusters are just one of the period musical's costuming coups) and they threaten to blow up a public library.

Father (who is well-acquainted with Coalhouse) tries to avert bloodshed and promises Coalhouse safety if he will throw down his arms and surrender to "honorable men."

But we in the audience know death waits, and we're so caught up in the story it's all we can do not to shout out a warning.

Then there's the WASP saga, set in upper-class, all-white, New Rochelle. Father (Mark Jacoby), a successful fireworks manufacturer, goes off to explore with Admiral Peary, and, in his absence, the cossetted, protected Mother (warmly interpreted by Marin Mazzie) comes into her own. Suddenly she's handling money and making decisions, including one to take the abandoned, desperate Sarah and her baby into the home she shares with her young son and her restless younger brother. Mother even welcomes

Father, a conservative to his core, returns to find a black woman and child living in his attic, and a black man playing piano in his living room. It's a harbinger of things to come ("New Music").

Then there are the Latvian immigrant, Tateh and his little daughter, whose story is that of all the tattered, hopeful European immigrants, "coming so far, expecting so much."

Instead of streets of gold, Tateh (an intense Peter Friedman) and his daughter find only dirt, desperation, anti-Semitism and poverty as bad or worse than what they left behind.

But Tateh has a skill. He cuts out and sells silhouettes. As time passes, he creates "a little book of silhouettes that simulated movement," then invents a projector, and by the end of the musical Tateh has become a moving picture director who can dress his daughter in frills and ruffles befitting a little princess.

Evelyn Nesbit (Lynnette Perry), "the girl on the swing," who built a successful vaudeville career from the notoriety that came from her husband shooting her lover; the fiery labor leader Emma Goldman (Judy Kaye); escape artist Harry Houdini (another immigrant); cautious, dignified black leader Booker T. Washington (Tommy Hollis); automobile titan Henry Ford; and tycoon J.P. Morgan all swirl across the turn-of-the-century panorama.

"Ragtime," which follows the densely complex E.L. Doctorow novel and the 1981 movie, works better as a beautifully presented, richly rewarding stage show.

The national tour of "Ragtime" is set to begin in Denver at the Buell Theatre on Aug. 21. (Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 42nd St. between Seventh and Eighth avenues. 1-212-582-1200.)

THE LION KING

Heart-grabbing and jaw-dropping, "The Lion King" inspires awe from its opening moment as an African chant rings through the air and the theater fills with a parade of fantastic actor-operated jungle creatures, including a life-sized elephant that lumbers down the aisle, leaping gazelles, stilt-legged giraffes and a proudly graceful cheetah.

The phenomenal opening spectacle, which culminates beneath Pride Rock as the majestic Mufasa (Samuel E. Wright) and his mate present their cub, Simba, to the beasts of the jungle ("Circle of Life"), is just a hint of things to come. The subsequent marvels include a pride of female lions that stalks and races through a hunt. A wildebeest stampede scrolls like a ribbon as seemingly thousands of horned, black animals thunder down a red-hued landscape. At another point, the air above the audience fills with swooping, multicolored birds.

In Taymor's visionary piece, the actor/dancers even create the landscape. Especially memorable is the instance when the dignified lion king, Mufasa, takes the frolicking Simba on a hunt through the African veldt. In this scene, the lions (portrayed much of the time by human actors wearing towering, helmetlike masks) are two small puppets, and the undulating veldt is created by dancers wearing tall-grass flats on their heads.

"The Lion King," with action moved along by a bright-eyed baboon (Tsidii Le Loka), centers on young Simba, played by irresistibly boyish Scott Irby-Rannia. Simba is restless, irresistible and impatient. "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" he sings early on, not realizing that for that to happen, his father would have to die.

Later, when Simba's impulsive behavior leads him into danger and his father dies trying to save him, Simba's plotting, malevolent uncle Scar (John Vickery) convinces the youngster that it's his fault.

Devastated, the young lion flees to the jungle, where he encounters Timon, a talkative meerkat (Max Casella) and his smelly, apologetic buddy, Pumbaa (Tom Alan Robbins), a flatulent wart hog.

In a lively song and dance ("Hakuna Matata"), they convince Simba that an unplanned, irresponsible life with no worries is best.

Meanwhile Scar takes over the kingdom, aided by a trio of hyenas, who are street-talking, greedy creatures ("Chow Down"). Effectively costumed in dark furry gray, their faces are set off by wide-gaping fanged red mouths.

As time passes, hunting is poor, water is drying up, Scar is crazier than ever, and to make matters worse, he has set his lustful sights on Simba's former childhood playmate, Nala, who has matured into a beautiful young lioness (Heather Headley).

Nala fights off Scar's advances, and sets out to find food for the starving lions. Far from home, she comes across Simba, whom she and the others have long believed dead. Simba (portrayed by the gorgeous, golden-skinned Jason Raize) has grown into a beautiful young lion.

As the two realize their feelings ("Can You Feel the Love Tonight"), two lion-costumed dancers in the background perform a passionate, beautifully choreographed pas de deux.

But although he's older, Simba is still racked by guilt and woefully immature. While Nala wants him to "be the king he can be," his preference is to enjoy his carefree life, rather than return and save his followers, and they part angrily.

Finally, after some soul-searching, Simba does rise to his responsibilities. The young lion returns home and vanquishes Scar in a terrible mountaintop battle.

In an ending that will leave you misty-eyed, the magical musical concludes as it began, with "The Circle of Life," as Simba and Nala stand on Pride Rock and present their newborn son. (New Amsterdam Theatre, Broadway and 42nd Street, 1-212-307-4747, groups, or 1-800-223-7565.)

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