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"Scott Irby-Ranniar is a spunky Young Simba while Jason Raize plays his hunky older self with boyish charm."
--New Jersey Star-Ledger review of The Lion King


 



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<< Newsday review of The Lion King

The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)
Long May it Reign: 'Lion King' a Magical Hit
by Michael Sommers, Staff
November 14, 1997




Yes. What the neighbors have been raving about is true: "The Lion King" is the most magical stage musical you and your kids will ever see.

The popular Disney animated feature has been transformed by director-designer Julie Taymor into a stunning stage event. Combining a graceful horde of actors, singers and dancers with a stylized world of fantastic puppets and theatrical wonderment, "The Lion King" roars with inspiration.

Unlike "Beauty and the Beast," this screen-to-stage production rarely tries to replicate the cartoon visuals of the original. Instead, the movie is mostly re-imagined in rich theater terms that endlessly amaze and delight.

The rather classically derived fable of Simba, an impetuous lion cub born to rule the African Pridelands, has been expanded just a bit for the stage, but follows its original storyline:

As owners of the video are well aware from their kids' constant playing of it, young Simba and his royal father Mufasa are betrayed by the wicked pretender Scar. When Mufasa dies in Scar's pre-arranged wildebeest stampede, a guilt-stricken Simba flees home to grow up a la Shakespeare's Prince Hal with his frick-and-frack friends Timon the meercat and Pumbaa the warthog.

Just like in the feature, eventually the grown Simba overcomes self-doubt to return to his now-ravaged homeland to battle Scar for his rightful throne.

The frisky Elton John-Tim Rice screen numbers have been beautifully augmented by the new authentic sounds of Lebo M's call-and-response Zulu chants and other haunting rhythms of African music-making, strikingly colored by native instruments deployed in the orchestra. Both Simba and his gal pal Nala also get handsome new songs based upon musical themes that background the film.

Taymor then takes this intelligent adaptation and uses her impressive creative abilities to forge a triumph of theatrical imagination.

The astonishing "Circle of Life" opening number alone is worth the admission price. As an orange sun dawns upon designer Richard Hudson's boldly stylized Pridelands setting, animals of all kinds converge - giraffes, gazelles, lions, antelope, zebras. Birds flutter in the air while an elephant and a rhinoceros grandly march down the theater's aisles along with the soaring anthem.

To make scenes like this happen, hundreds of real-sized and scaled-down puppets of every description and the people who give them life are melded together to form the creatures populating the musical. Birds zoom aloft on elastic poles. Stilt-walkers lope about as giraffes and ostriches. The humans are always visible, breathing living spirit into the exquisitely crafted creations.

Many of the major characters are depicted by actors wearing moveable masks, elaborate body makeup, and insinuating costume pieces. Mufasa's lion head is a virtual crown. Scar's crooked soul is implied by a twisted construction that snakes up his spine. Young Simba and Nala are simply kids in African garb.

Waterfalls with chomping crocodiles, stampedes of raging beasts, a starry vision of the Lion King in the midnight skies, and similar events are rendered through theatrical sleight-of-hand that require viewers to use their own imaginations to fill out what the designers cunningly suggest. A simple circle of blue fabric, for example, represents a pool of water that slowly dries up as the material is drawn down through a gap at its center.

Speaking of gaps, let's mention that there are several deficiencies that flaw this otherwise grand family entertainment.

The amplification system is cranked up to near-painful levels which tends to distort most of the lyrics into meaningless blurs of sound. The figures of Timon and Pumbaa, delightful though they are, are visual replicas of their animated selves - which clashes against this less literal world represented on stage - while the agreeable actors playing them offer impersonations of Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella's original vocal inflections.

There's also a slight feeling of let-down at the joyous conclusion, which may mean that Taymor was unable to top her earlier marvels or that the viewer is simply a bit exhausted from all the wonderments that have already transpired.

Created by a committee of writers and composers, "The Lion King" is a long way removed from the tight classic construction of Golden Age musicals. Oscar Hammerstein II would bemoan the sprawling shape of the show even as he'd applaud its nice message and admire the eclectic traditions of Taymor's staging.

The vitality of the ensemble is marvelous to witness as performers assume individually lithe animal motions through choreographer Garth Fagan's ministrations. African vocal arrangements make for unusually stirring choral moments.

Scott Irby-Ranniar is a spunky Young Simba while Jason Raize plays his hunky older self with boyish charm. A regal Samuel E. Wright makes an imposing Mustafa, John Vickery's sneering Scar drips with satisfying villainy, and Geoff Hoyle energizes the Zazu puppet on his arm into a drolly unflappable know-it-all.

Perhaps best of all, the wise witch doctor-like baboon Rafiki has been transgendered into a female character portrayed with winning authenticity and sly humor by Tsidii Le Loka.

What else can I tell you? Yes - "The Lion King" is an absolute must-go for any kid aged 7 or 8 and up. I can't think of any better introduction to live theater than this show, which harmoniously resides among the plaster flora and fauna of the gorgeously restored New Amsterdam Theatre.

Youngsters will never forget seeing "The Lion King." And you're always going to remember the wondrous look on your kid's face.

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