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"Jason Raize emerges as a matinee idol in his dashing portrayal of Simba."
--Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review of The Lion King

 



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Kitchener Record review of The Lion King

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI)
Hear Them Roar:
Hot Musicals Dominate Broadway

by Damien Jaques
October 4, 1998




The musical still rules Broadway.

The current revival of "Cabaret," decadently staged by British director Sam Mendes, is such a hot ticket, the show is moving Nov. 12 to the space once occupied by the trendy Studio 54. The move will almost double the musical's seating capacity, from 520 to 950.

"Ragtime" may not be quite the box-office smash hit its producers had hoped for, but it won a slew of Tony Awards and is doing strong business.

Past Tony winners "Rent," "Phantom" and "Chicago" keep rolling on, packing in audiences of tourists and business travelers. But "The Lion King" is king, in more ways than one.

Only a handful of tickets remain for performances in 1998. If you call and request tickets for an October date, you will be sold seats for October of 1999.

On stage, "The Lion King" is unlike anything Broadway has seen in years. It possesses a bold creativity and eagerness to push the commercial theater envelope, and amazingly, it comes from Disney, that slick marketer of mass entertainment.

"Beauty and the Beast" was Disney's first venture into Broadway musicals, and the company produced a bland and safe live theater replication of its successful animated film. Broadway's old guard, jealous of and intimidated by Disney's deep pockets and peerless brand name, chortled over the artless approach.

The chuckling turned to surprised respect when the Big Mouse chose Julie Taymor, an avant garde director and designer of masks, puppets and costumes, to stage the live theater version of its animated hit "The Lion King."

Taymor has won many awards for her work in theater, film and opera, but she had never been entrusted with such a large commercial production. Her pairing with "The Lion King" is the best Disney marriage since Mickey met Minnie.

Taymor's creation is a breathtaking visual and aural feast that begins with a thrilling opening scene so euphoric the rest of the show is almost anticlimactic.

With a lone figure on a bare stage, Elton John's "The Circle of Life" slowly and quietly starts. Then the animals begin to appear, some on the stage and others ambling down the aisles through the audience toward the stage.

Rather than attempting to make the beasts look real, Taymor and collaborator Michael Curry allow us to see the actors operating the life-size puppets and the fascinating mechanisms that drive the puppets' authentic movements.

Graceful beauty characterizes the puppet designs, and the overall effect gives the creatures a majesty no human in an animal suit could ever achieve. The animal kingdom has never been so spectacularly re-created on a stage.

Richard Hudson's scenic design and Donald Holder's lights follow Taymor's lead. Awe-inspiring special effects are representational rather than realistic. The idea is to explore and exploit creative techniques of storytelling unique to the stage.

The emphasis is on the visual, not the textual, but that is not bad. The story is simple and easy to follow. Simba, a young lion who is son of the king, mistakenly thinks he is responsible for his father's death.

He exiles himself from the other lions, wanders with a warthog and a mongoose for a few years, and then returns to assume his regal responsibilities. Simba must deal with a villainous rival and a trio of nasty hyenas, and of course, a love interest.

Elton John and Tim Rice added three new songs to the five they wrote for the movie, and additional music and lyrics were provided by Taymor, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Hans Zimmer and South African Grammy-winner Lebo M.

The African underscoring adds a haunting depth to the piece, and M's African vocal arrangements are richly evocative. No wonder the cast album can stand alone as compelling musical theater.

Individual performances tend to pale in the brilliant light of the music and visual delights, but the show must be full of strong singers and dancers. The cast, a blend of American and African performers, sings very well, and Jason Raize emerges as a matinee idol in his dashing portrayal of Simba.

Soaring imagination is the real star of "The Lion King." The show is bursting with exciting theatricality. How wonderful it is that thousands of children will be introduced to the live theater by a musical that defines the term "stage magic."

A trend has developed in the staging of major revivals of hit musicals. Make them grittier, more emotionally immediate, more realistic, and in your face.

"Cabaret" is in your face and gives you quite an eyeful. Director Sam Mendes first staged his concept of turning up the heat under "Cabaret" and presenting it in a nightclub setting in London a few years ago.

Its critical and box office success made a New York staging inevitable, and the old Henry Miller Theatre was transformed into a 1930s German nightspot, appropriately called the Kit Kat Klub. Most of the customers squeeze around tiny tables, where waitresses in black fishnet stockings serve them $10 mixed drinks.

The idea is to desanitize the theatrical and film versions of "Cabaret" from 30 years ago, and present the Kit Kat Klub in all of its seedy, seamy, sordid raunchiness. The tone is set before the first note is sung when the show's chorines, the Kit Kat Girls, clad only in their underwear, slouch onto the small club stage one by one and proceed to perform their stretching exercises. Lying on their backs a few feet from the front tables, they provide quite a view as they spread, bend and flex.

Sexuality oozes through this production, and the emcee played by Scottish actor Alan Cumming is the principal source.

In contrast with the sinister cynicism of Joel Grey's unforgettable take on the role, Cumming is a very naughty boy who gleefully gropes the girls, the boys and himself at every opportunity. He delights in the belief that he is getting away with something.

Cumming quickly becomes a riveting figure through his extremely facile use of facial expression and body language. But that can't-take-your-eyes-off-him magnetism ultimately damages the production. Film star Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing Sally Bowles, is so bland and lightweight she blends into the scenery. With Sally a cipher, Cumming's emcee overwhelms the show.

Ron Rifkin deserves the Tony he won for his very human portrait of Herr Schultz, and in his especially fine portrayal of Ernst Ludwig, Denis O'Hare gives dimension and clarity to a character who is usually given short shrift.

There is a nagging suspicion that the primary goal of this "Cabaret" is to shock. It is fun to watch the outrageously decadent Cumming and wallow in the show's sensual wickedness, but it is artifice. The tamer "Cabaret" ultimately works better.

"Ragtime" is a serious and lavish historical pageant that contains pretty stage pictures, a memorable score by Stephen Flaherty, and knockout performances from Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald. Based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel set at the turn of the century, it follows three tracks of fictional characters -- well-to-do WASPS, recent European immigrants and African-Americans.

The tracks cross, and their characters mix with an eclectic smattering of historical figures including Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan and Emma Goldman. Doctorow was making observations about and showing parallels between the changing social forces in the United States at the turn of the century and in the 1960s. Terrence McNally's book for the musical is true to the novel.

The production team is experienced and strong. Frank Galati directed, Graciela Daniele did the musical staging, and Eugene Lee designed the show.

Production numbers are frequently rousing, and the subject matter has substance and significance. But this is not a great musical. It's missing heart.

Perhaps it's the story's panoramic sweep. Maybe the tone is just too chilly. You'll carry "Ragtime's" songs with you after leaving the theater, and you'll recall with admiration Mitchell's and McDonald's performances, but the show itself does not make a lasting impression.

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