The musical still rules
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
A trend has developed in the staging of
major revivals of hit musicals.
Make them grittier, more emotionally
immediate, more realistic, and in
"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
Sexuality oozes through this production,
and the emcee played by
Scottish actor Alan Cumming is the
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
Cumming quickly becomes a riveting figure
through his extremely facile
use of facial expression and body
language. But that
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
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
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
Production numbers are frequently rousing,
and the subject matter has
substance and significance. But this is
not a great musical. It's
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.