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"As hard as [Irby-Ranniar's] performance is to follow, Jason Raize as the older Simba manages, keeping the outgoing charm while developing a mature responsibility."
--Star Tribune review of The Lion King


 





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<< Chicago Tribune review of The Lion King

Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota)
'The Lion King' is an Evening
of Almost Pure Delight

by Mike Steele, Staff Writer
August 1, 1997




Giraffes strut on stilts, birds swoop like kites, antelopes leap and an elephant sashays down the aisle and lumbers onstage as Rafiki, the baboon shaman, breaks into "Circle of Life," Elton John and Tim Rice's great song about the interrelationship of all things.

The music soars as the entire Serengeti plain of southern Africa comes to musical life while Pride Rock slowly rises out of the stage, lions striding up its perimeter until finally, King Mufasa and his wife emerge on top holding aloft their baby, Simba, heir to the throne, for all his subjects to see.

This wonderful theater powerfully opens the stage version of Disney's "The Lion King," setting up the character of the whole show with its soaring melodies, pulsing rhythms, humanized animals and daring stylizations.

Julie Taymor's stage adaptation of Disney's most popular animated movie, getting its pre-Broadway production at the Historic Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, is an audacious, cross-cultural re-envisioning of the film. It never tries to copy the film, the way the stage version of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" did before it. Yet, somehow it manages to be true to the film's spirit while becoming a playful, imaginative celebration of theater.

Technical wizardry fits a simple fable

It's technically complex and sophisticated, yet the end result is earthy and simple, like the fable "The Lion King" is. The design by Richard Hudson is organic and minimal - heavy on African fabric designs and simple clouds, grasses and abstract shapes - but it conjures up the vast African savannah while the sumptuous lighting by Donald Holder brings dimension as well as atmosphere to the scene.

The story follows a boy-lion whose youthful curiosity takes him through a dizzying journey that leads him to find how to assume the responsibilities of being a king. The presentation of the tale draws far and wide from world theater, ancient and modern, from rod-and-shadow puppets to the latest technology.

Pride Rock corkscrews up from nowhere. Characters fly and tumble through space. A somber, spooky elephant graveyard emerges from a smoky haze. A stunning wildebeest stampede rockets madly from hilltop down into valley with fanciful force. Yet all the while, you can see that the animals are people portraying animals.

Animal-people kingdom

The lions are actors wearing lion headdresses, some of which rear back on their heads or shoot toward an adversary. Zazu, the king's majordomo, is a bird-puppet operated in the Japanese Bunraku style. The baboon Rafiki appears wrapped in splendid African fabrics, her face painted in swirls of color like a Kabuki actor. Somehow it all fits into the African, world-as-a-community context that envelops "The Lion King."

Taymor clearly knows that the movie was seen by millions, all of whom will have some expectations of her show. Thus, two of the film's most popular figures, the warthog Pumbaa (Tom Alan Robbins) and the meerkat Timon (Max Casella) look almost exactly like the film figures. Of course, Robbins wears the warthog around his waist, hooked on by suspenders while Casella, dressed in camouflage green, propels the human-sized Timon in front of him.

Taymor gets more fanciful with unnamed characters. Birds are propelled by actors who wing them around on wires and strings. Gazelles are fastened to a sort of tricycle that makes them leap continuously as the contraption wheels about. Even the grasslands are personified by dancers' grass headdresses, over which tiny puppets of Simba and Nala bound in one of the show's many magic moments.

An African heartbeat

Although the majority of songs are by John and Rice (who have added three strong numbers to the movie's original five), the feel of the show is really captured by the rhythmic South African underscoring and newly written chants and songs by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Hans Zimmer and Jay Rifkin. The uplifting "He Lives in You," the powerful "Shadowlands" and the rousing spiritual "One By One" are especially superb.

Taymor and her crew have done a splendid job of keeping this show rolling, and the strong cast doesn't have a weak link.

The deep-voiced, dignified Samuel E. Wright as Mufasa is both bold and tender. He provides perfect contrast to John Vickery's insinuating Scar, who sounds a great deal like Jeremy Irons did in the movie, but with his own languid, oily cynicism.

As the young Simba, 12-year-old Scott Irby-Ranniar proves to be a natural performer with bumptious energy and great stage intuition who makes all the right choices: energetic, curious and adventurous.

As hard as his performance is to follow, Jason Raize as the older Simba manages, keeping the outgoing charm while developing a mature responsibility.

Le Loka brings a splendidly expressive, gutsy voice to Rafiki, giving her not only all the humor of baboonery, but an odd and effective majesty, as well. Geoff Hoyle motors Zazu around like a vaudeville ventriloquist, tossing off groaning puns with an easygoing lack of shame. Heather Headley is a honey-voiced Nala. Casella and Robbins treat Timon and Pumbaa like a couple of Borscht Belt comics, making their goofy paean to avoidance, "Hakuna Matata," a highlight of an evening with many highlights, an evening of almost pure delight.

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