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
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
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
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
on the youth's avoidance of
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.