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"Mr. Wright, Mr. Raize and Ms. Headley are all attractive performers with melodious voices."
--The New York Times Theater review of The Lion King

 



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<< St. Petersburg Times review of The Lion King

The New York Times (New York, NY)
Cub Comes of Age: A Twice-Told Cosmic Tale
by Ben Brantley
Theater Section
November 14, 1997

Click here to read the story live on The New York Times website
 



Suddenly, you're 4 years old again, and you've been taken to the circus for the first time. You can only marvel at the exotic procession of animals before you: the giraffes and the elephants and the hippopotamuses and all those birds in balletic flight. Moreover, these are not the weary-looking beasts in plumes and spangles that usually plod their way through urban circuses but what might be described as their Platonic equivalents, creatures of air and light and even a touch of divinity.

Where are you, really, anyway? The location is supposed to be a theater on 42d Street, a thoroughfare that has never been thought of as a gateway to Eden. Yet somehow you have fallen into what appears to be a primal paradise. And even the exquisitely restored New Amsterdam Theater, a former Ziegfeld palace, disappears before the spectacle within it.

Such is the transporting magic wrought by the opening 10 minutes of "The Lion King," the director Julie Taymor's staged version of the Midas-touch cartoon movie that has generated millions for the Walt Disney Company. And the ways in which Ms. Taymor translates the film's opening musical number, "Circle of Life," where an animal kingdom of the African plains gathers to pay homage to its leonine ruler and his newly born heir, is filled with astonishment and promise.

For one thing, it is immediately clear that this production, which opened last night, is not going to follow the path pursued by Disney's first Broadway venture, "Beauty and the Beast," a literal-minded exercise in turning its cinematic model into three dimensions. Ms. Taymor, a maverick artist known for her bold multicultural experiments with puppetry and ritualized theater, has her own distinctive vision, one that is miles away from standard Disney fare.

And while this "Lion King" holds fast to much of the film's basic plot and dialogue (the book is by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi), Ms. Taymor has abandoned none of the singular, and often haunting, visual flourishes she brought to such surreal works as "Juan Darien," which was revived at Lincoln Center last season, and "The Green Bird."

There has been much jokey speculation about the artistic marriage of the corporate giant and the bohemian iconoclast, which has been discussed as though Donald Trump and Karen Finley had decided to set up housekeeping. But that rich first number, in which those life-size animal figures assume a transcendent, pulsing existence, seems to suggest that these strange bedfellows might indeed live in blissful harmony.

Unfortunately, it turns out that these glorious opening moments are only the honeymoon part of this fable of the coming of age of a lion with a father fixation. Throughout the show's 2 hours and 40 minutes (as against the 75-minute movie), there will be plenty of instances of breathtaking beauty and scenic ingenuity, realized through techniques ranging from shadow puppetry to Bunraku. Certainly, nowhere before on Broadway has a stampede of wildebeests or a herd of veldt-skimming gazelles been rendered with such eye-popping conviction.

But in many ways, Ms. Taymor's vision, which is largely rooted in ritual forms of theater from Asia and Africa, collides with that of Disney, where visual spectacle is harnessed in the service of heartwarming storytelling. There were hopes that the Disney-Taymor collaboration might reflect what Katharine Hepburn reportedly said about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: "He gives her class, and she gives him sex" (if you think of Ms. Taymor as Astaire and you substitute sentiment for sex).

But Ms. Taymor's strengths have never been in strongly sustained narratives or fully developed characters. It is the cosmic picture that she's after, a sense of the cycles of life and death, of rebirth and metamorphosis. Accordingly, many of the strongest scenes in this "Lion King" are edged in mortal darkness, including a lovely vignette in which lionesses stalk their prey.

Since the movie version had a fashionably eco-friendly aspect, with pointed reference to the delicate balance of nature, Ms. Taymor's animistic viewpoint is not entirely out of place here. But although many of the actors have charm and freshness, they are hampered to some extent by the masks and puppet effigies that turn them into animals. You will gasp again and again at the inventive visual majesty of this show, realized through the masks and puppets of Ms. Taymor and Michael Curry, scenic design by Richard Hudson, and Donald Holder's wonderful elemental lighting. But you may be harder pressed to muster the feelings of suspense and poignancy that the film, for all its preachiness, really did evoke.

If you have young children, you probably know the plot. The lion cub Simba (Scott Irby-Ranniar), the heir to the throne of his heroic father, Mufasa (Samuel E. Wright), becomes the pawn of his father's evil brother and archrival, Scar (John Vickery). When Scar murders Mufasa, he convinces the vulnerable cub that it is he who is responsible for the death. And Simba, in the tradition of young fairy tale heroes, goes into exile in a forest, where he finally comes to terms with his inner self and is ready to reclaim the throne.

The words and the jokes here are familiar from the movie. So are many of the mostly unexceptional songs, with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, although this production includes additional music and lyrics (by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Hans Zimmer and Ms. Taymor) that incorporate a more authentic sense of tribal rhythms and call-and-response choruses.

There's an irresistible pull to this music, and when the performers take to the aisles, their puppet appendages in tow, the show takes on a celebratory carnival feeling that almost matches its opening. It's when "The Lion King" decides to fulfill its obligations as a traditional Broadway book musical that it goes slack.

Garth Fagan's choreography is, for the most part, on the clumsy side. A romantic ballet in which the grown Simba ( Jason Raize ) and his lioness girlfriend (Heather Headley) discover their attraction while other pairs of lovers float in the air above them still seems like a concept waiting to be worked out. And the rendering of the show's best-known number, "Hakuna Matata," a paean to the easy life, surprisingly lacks effervescence.

The vaudeville-ish comedy from the movie has been imported more or less intact, and, on its own grade-school terms, it's still pretty funny. As Simba's pals Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the wart hog, Max Casella and Tom Alan Robbins are a winning burlesque team. Mr. Casella and Geoff Hoyle, who plays an officious hornbill named Zazu, manipulate puppets that are attached to their bodies and yet somehow manage to make both parts of their divided selves into one character.

As the sinister Scar, in a part spoken to perfection by Jeremy Irons in the movie, Mr. Vickery is too campy to be very menacing, and he isn't helped by his silly costume, which looks more armadillo than lion. Tracy Nicole Chapman, Stanley Wayne Mathis and Kevin Cahoon, who play a trio of scavenging hyenas, are actually more satisfactory villains. And Tsidii Le Loka as Rafiki, the shaman baboon, is a delightful force of gibbering energy.

Mr. Wright, Mr. Raize and Ms. Headley are all attractive performers with melodious voices. But only Mr. Irby-Ranniar, in a most convincing portrait of impetuous, conflicted youth, strikes a spontaneous human chord that invites emotional engagement.

Still, "The Lion King" remains an important work in a way that "Beauty and the Beast" simply is not. Ms. Taymor has introduced a whole new vocabulary of images to the Broadway blockbuster, and you're unlikely to forget such sights as the face of Simba's dead father forming itself into an astral mask among the stars.

There will inevitably be longueurs for both adults and children who attend this show. But it offers a refreshing and more sophisticated alternative to the standard panoply of special effects that dominate most tourist-oriented shows today. Seen purely as a visual tapestry, there is simply nothing else like it.

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