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"Jason Raize is a handsome Simba."
--Norfolk Virginian-Pilot review of The Lion King

 

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<< Houston Chronicle review of The Lion King

The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)
Disney Asserts Broadway Might
with "The Lion King"

by Mal Vincent, Entertainment Writer
December 7, 1997




With the sophisticated visual majesty that is "The Lion King'' on Broadway, there is no denying that the Disney organization is now a theatrical presence.

It isn't a status that has been achieved easily. No longer can the Broadway purists moan that the Disney empire is threatening to turn New York into a new theme park. No longer can the theater snobs dismiss the Disney Theatrical wing as a money-heavy upstart.

"The Lion King,'' with its lifesized puppets, tribal drums and revolving scenery, is not a product of re-creation but one of creation. Unlike "Beauty and the Beast,'' Disney's other Broadway venture, this is not a case of merely adapting human performers to the conceits of an animated film. Here, the innovative 44-year-old director Julie Taymor has kept the basic plot of the 1994 cartoon movie while expanding it into a purely theatrical form all its own. She uses Asian masks as well as primitive African music, mixed with everything from dancers suspended in air to bursts of towering smoke.

Quite a formidable Tony Award race in the "best musical'' category is shaping up, with the acclaimed musical ``Ragtime,'' long considered a shoo-in, opening in just four weeks. Suddenly, the lion cub is roaring with a pride that no one expected to be quite this theatrically unique.

Peter Schneider, the head of Disney's Theatrical Productions, has clearly taken chances here - and all of them have paid off. Even the usually subdued New York Times gushed that "The Lion King'' is told with ``a theatricality that frequently takes the breath away.''

The show, with a budget of $20 million, is the most expensive in Broadway history and employs 40 actors, 50 stagehands and 24 musicians. The five songs from the movie soundtrack (by Tim Rice and Elton John) have been augmented by three new songs by the team and five additional songs by Hans Zimmer (who won an Oscar for scoring the film), Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Lebo M. None of the new songs are distinctive. But the movie's songs, with the exception of the opening "Circle of Life,'' now sound too simple for such an otherwise sophisticated production.

The first 10 minutes of "The Lion King'' have an awe-inspiring celebratory nature that take you back to the first time you went to the circus. Down the aisles they lumber, majestically and slowly. Life-sized puppets to suggest an elephant, a rhinoceros, birds and gazelles make their way through the audience to reach the stage - called to pay homage to Mufasa, the lion king, and his newborn heir, the cub held aloft to be viewed.

The familiar plot concerns Simba, the lion cub, being duped by his evil Uncle Scar into believing he was responsible for his father's death. After exile into the forest, the cub gains the maturity and self-confidence to return to claim his throne.

One of the appeals of this treatment is that the so-called "magic'' is all clearly non-mysterious. Director Taymor, who is usually associated with more arty and rebelliously non-mainstream works, lets us in on all her tricks. The puppets are clearly manipulated by actors who are in full view, standing behind them, or within them. The giraffe is a stooped-over man, walking with his hands and feet on stilts.

A wildebeest stampede is simulated by shadow puppets projected off three wheels that are plainly in view. Taymor is not in the business of presenting curtained-off illusions. She asks, indeed demands, that the audience go along with her game. If you're willing to play it, you see things you know are not actually there. This is what real theater is about.

One hint is to look at the puppet and ignore the human talking and manipulating behind it. Then, on the other hand, you might choose to ignore the puppet and center only on the human. This show can be seen in many different ways.

Three 8-foot-high columns of smoke burst from various points on the stage. None of the animals are lovable little furry Disney creations. They don't look like real animals at all. They look like surreal stage animals.

In spite of all this visual splendor, there is little suspense or dramatic involvement generated. Perhaps it is that the music is primarily pop rather than book. The songs are pleasant enough, but don't really further the plot. They are interludes. Samuel E. Wright is quite noble as Mufasa but John Vickery is much too amiably campy to be much of a threat as Scar. Timon, the sly meerkat, and Pumbaa, the wart hog with gas, are a winsome vaudeville team, portrayed by Max Casella and Tom Alan Robbins. Jason Raize is a handsome Simba and Scott Irby-Raniar is an energetic young Simba.

Garth Fagan's choreography is rather ordinary, especially an ill-conceived version of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?'' with dancers suspended by ropes. They're in the air, but they have nothing to do.

The theater itself is a show. It is the New Amsterdam, purchased and renovated by Disney to be its own Broadway showcase. This 42nd Street theater was once a Ziegfeld palace. It was on this same stage that, during the Depression, Eddie Cantor said ``Nowadays, when a man walks into a hotel and requests a room on the 19th floor, the clerk asks: `For sleeping or jumping?' ''

But the Depression is long past, and so is the grime and lack of light for 42nd Street. "The Lion King'' is likely to be running at this theater for years to come - even at a disturbing top price of $80 per ticket.

Coming from the theater, or going to a restaurant, people spot the program in your hand and will boldly stop you, or come over to your table, to ask what you thought of the show. "Have you seen it?'' they ask in obvious excitement. There hasn't been this much excitement about a Broadway show in years.

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