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"[Irby-Ranniar] is matched perfectly with Jason Raize, the older Simba, a magnetic performer destined to be a teen heartthrob."
--Associated Press review of The Lion King

 



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<< The Washington Times review of The Lion King

Associated Press, as printed in The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL)
Heartfelt "Lion King" Destined to be Mane Event
by Michael Kuchwara
November 23, 1997




NEW YORK -- Make no mistake: The Lion King is a rare theater experience. The musical, which opened this month at Disney's restored New Amsterdam Theater, is intelligent spectacle, extravagance with a purpose -- and a heart.

From the moment it begins, with a majestic orange sun rising across the stage and a parade of actor-propelled animal puppets lumbering down the aisles, The Lion King offers astonishing stage magic. And the wonderment never stops for more than 2 1/2 hours.

Theater is the most collaborative of art forms, but The Lion King starts with the vision and inspiration of one woman, director and designer Julie Taymor.

Only Taymor would have the audacity and canny sense of stagecraft to follow that lavish opening number, the prophetic Circle of Life, with a scene featuring a tiny shadow puppet of a mouse scampering across the African savannah. The eye automatically is drawn to Taymor's work, whether it is big or small.

Unlike Disney's Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast, which carefully replicated the film, Taymor has taken The Lion King and transformed it into something that could only exist live, on stage.

What makes this Lion King so special, and so different from the film version, is that it deliberately flaunts its artifice. Actor and puppet are both visible at all times. Even when performers wear masks, they are, more often than not, balanced delicately on the heads of the actors so theatergoers see both at the same time.

This is Taymor at her most imaginative. Performers walking on giant stilts become giraffes; birds on wire strings swoop through the air; gazelles connected to a moving bicycle contraption leap in unison; and a pride of lionesses, women moving to Garth Fagan's choreography, dance with a solemn gracefulness that is breathtaking.

Some of Taymor's scenic effects are equally awesome. A large blue cloth slowly disappears into a hole on stage, suggesting a drought that has enveloped the African plain.

Then there is set designer Richard Hudson's Pride Rock, the physical center of the musical. It's a large swirling monument that corkscrews out of the floor to become the home for a family of lions who are the tale's main characters.

Yet none of this would matter if the story didn't capture the audience's attention, and it does. Taymor remains faithful to the plot of the movie version, yet she expands on the dilemma facing the musical's young lion hero. Simba is the guilt-ridden son who thinks he has killed his father, so he runs away from the consequences.

Taymor gives the tale a sturdier emotional underpinning, concentrating on the youth's avoidance of responsibility.

If that sounds much too somber, it isn't. Taymor knows how to have fun. There are more than a few low-comedy jokes, even a few at Disney's expense. In his period of exile and growing up, Simba is aided and abetted by Pumbaa, a warthog, and Timon, a meerkat or mongoose.

The director has found a cast that is not swamped by the special effects. Eleven-year-old Scott Irby-Ranniar, with a deep voice for one so young, is an ideal and perfectly natural little Simba. He is matched perfectly with Jason Raize, the older Simba, a magnetic performer destined to be a teen heartthrob.

In the pivotal role of Scar, the evil uncle, Jon Vickery oozes sarcasm. Samuel E. Wright projects rock-solid authority as Mufasa, the father whose death causes Simba's moral crisis.

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