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"['Hakuna Matata'] is also the number in which Young Simba becomes the grown Simba, played by Jason Raize, a handsome young actor with a good voice.''
--The New York Times Arts & Leisure review of The Lion King


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<< Associated Press review of The Lion King as printed in The Florida Times-Union

The New York Times (New York, NY)
"The Lion King" Earns its Roars of Approval
by Vincent Canby
Arts & Leisure Section
November 21, 1997

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

As an air of jubilation filled the meticulously restored New Amsterdam Theater following the final preview performance of "The Lion King," I was somehow reminded of a comment attributed to Ethel Merman about Mary Martin. "She's O.K.," said Merman, who had better things to do than talk about the latest competition, "if you like talent."

If you like talent, you have to acknowledge the magical accomplishments of Julie Taymor in transforming the 1994 Disney cartoon feature into a major Broadway event. The multigifted artist not only directed the show, but she also wrote the lyrics for one of the new songs, designed the costumes and (with Michael Curry) the gorgeous masks and puppets. Critics of the National Endowment for the Arts take note: this overnight sensation, now making her commercial Broadway debut, perfected her various talents during years of working with the same not-for-profit theaters the N.E.A. was designed to support.

The result is one of the most memorable, moving and original theatrical extravaganzas in years, an enterprise that can only make the profit-propelled Disney organization even richer.

Here is an animist "Odyssey" that mixes primal African music with first-rate Anglo-American pop, American and African actors with puppets of international provenance, a mythic children's tale with good old-fashioned burlesque.

The show's first spectacular sequence expands the mind for all that follows. As if called forth by tribal drums, the theater becomes alive with familiar creatures of dreamlike beauty, ostentatiously unreal and absolutely authentic in spite of the actor-handlers we see manipulating them. Virtually life-size elephants and a rhino, seemingly woven of rattan, lumber serenely down the aisles of the New Amsterdam, avoiding the feet of patrons they don't appear to see.

Giraffes, their long necks bobbing ever so slightly, pick their way across the stage with an elegant diffidence that, you suddenly realize, is the way giraffes have always walked. Gazelles leap into view. A lone cheetah appears. Eventually the entire animal kingdom assembles, called together by Mufasa, the benevolent lion king, to acknowledge his son and heir. He is Young Simba, a loving boy whose youthful high spirits will soon almost destroy the realm.

Thus begins a fable about a wise old father, a prodigal son, an evil uncle named Scar (who aspires beyond his capacities to be a Richard III), three raucous, restless hyenas who lust for blood, an unlikely comedy team composed of a smelly wart hog, Pumbaa, and his gabby meerkat sidekick, Timon, and the king's fastidious chamberlain, Zazu, a largish bird, a hornbill, whose mind is somewhat less bright than his plumage. They are most engaging company.

"The Lion King" is told with a theatricality that frequently takes the breath away, and with a sophistication that has little to do with the usual Disney cuteness or with the Disney idea of animism. There are no dancing spoons here as in "Beauty and the Beast." Young Simba is no Keene-eyed moppet of a lion cub, as he is in the film, but an irrepressible 13-year-old boy (Scott Irby- Ranniar), with the energy of a hip-hopping New York street kid. He doesn't yet have a mane like his father's, only a scrawny tail that he hasn't grown into but that, as he sings and dances up a storm, he sometimes twirls as if it might become a jump rope.

Ms. Taymor has realized a singing and dancing show for which the movie appears to have been a mere blueprint. The book is by Roger Allers (one of the film's two directors) and Irene Mecchi (one of the film's three writers). Elton John and Tim Rice, who wrote the film's five songs, have contributed three more, which have been augmented by five additional songs by Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Lebo M, the only African member of the film's music team. Lebo M, who is both a member of the singing chorus and its director, and Tsidii Le Loka, a South African singer and songwriter who plays the baboon-shaman Rafiki, also wrote the tribal chants that give the stage production a celebratory vocal heft the movie never sought.

For all of these contributors, the show is obviously the product of Ms. Taymor's singular imagination, financed by the Disney company's deep pockets. In the past, Ms. Taymor's work has tended toward the visually rich but esoteric, like her productions of "Titus Andronicus" (1994) and "The Green Bird" (1996), both with Theater for a New Audience, and "Juan Darien" at Lincoln Center Theater in 1996.

With "The Lion King," she demonstrates that she is quite capable not only of meeting the demands of the commercial theater but also of setting new standards for it.

Most important, the show effortlessly realizes serious concerns that in the movie seemed simply obligatory but here give real shape to myth. The Elton John-Tim Rice "Circle of Life," a big neo-religioso number sung by the ensemble, acquires mystical dimension on the stage, introduced as it is by Ms. Le Loka's otherworldly voice and presence as the shaman. In this number and other moments throughout the show, "The Lion King," long after the Age of Aquarius, recalls something of the sweet, hopeful naivete of "Hair." It finds order in the universe.

Even the movie's more or less conventionally comic and upbeat songs take off on the stage. Listen to the way Mr. Irby-Ranniar tears into "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," after Mufasa has shown Young Simba the land he will one day inherit. It is both hilarious and a little spooky. The boy doesn't yet connect his patrimony with the event that will one day make it a reality.

Parents whose children played the movie album to death may dread the revival of the film's most upbeat, rhythmically infectious number, "Hakuna Matata." For those like me, who came to the movie late, "Hakuna Matata" means "no worries," and is the sunny philosophy that Timon, the meerkat, and Pumbaa, the wart hog, pass on to Young Simba, who has run away from home believing he was responsible for his father's death.

As sung and danced by Mr. Irby-Ranniar, and Max Casella and Tom Allan Robbins, the actor-puppeteers manipulating, respectively, the meerkat and the wart hog, this brings the first act to a finale that the audience doesn't want to end. It is also the number in which Young Simba becomes the grown Simba, played by Jason Raize, a handsome young actor with a good voice.

Act II isn't as uproarious as Act I but, because of the show's solid underpinnings and a couple of good new songs, the pace doesn't seriously flag.

Mr. Irby-Ranniar is remarkable as Young Simba. Also most winning are Ms. Le Loka, Samuel E. Wright (Mufasa) and Kajuana Shuford (Young Nala, the lioness Simba loves in childhood). As the evil uncle Scar, John Vickery appears to have been directed to play with a broad superciliousness that undercuts the dry humor written into his lines.

The actor-puppeteers are in a class all their own. Among the most wizardly: Mr. Casella who, dressed in what seems to be an emerald green body stocking, activates the meerkat and provides his voice without appearing to be in any way connected to him, and Geoff Hoyle, who handles Zazu, the hornbill, by more conventional but no less remarkable puppet strings.

The behind-the-scenes talent matches the high level of the onstage contributors: Garth Fagan (choreographer), Richard Hudson (scenic design) and Tony Meola, the sound designer who, I assume, is responsible for the fact that "The Lion King" is one of the very few current Broadway musicals that you can hear clearly and, you might even say, distortion-free.

All of these artists and artisans are upstaged from time to time by the work of Ms. Taymor and Mr. Curry. Though their lion masks are handsome, they are sometimes more interesting theoretically than they are in practice. They sit atop the actors'
heads as if they were helmets, at key moments slipping down -- visorlike -- over the
faces. The masks seem awkward in a way the puppets never are.

Each puppet has a life of its own, even when the body of the handler, as in the case of the wart hog and the hyenas, is an integral part of the puppet itself. The puppets help to make possible special effects that no amount of heavy machinery could ever accomplish.

Look out for the stampede of the wildebeests, be prepared for the moment when birds fill the theater. Time and again Ms. Taymor seduces the audience into seeing what, in reality, isn't there.

That is theater.

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