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"[When Simba] grows into adulthood and is portrayed by Jason Raize, he's every inch a candidate to rule the land."
--Syracuse Herald American review of The Lion King

 




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<< Seattle Post-Intelligencer review of The Lion King

Syracuse Herald American (Syracuse, NY)
A Palace for a Royal Show:
Disney's "The Lion King" Leaps onto
a Stunning Stage in Manhattan

by Joan Vadeboncoeur
November 30, 1997




Decisions. Decisions.

Ogle the opulent decor of the New Amsterdam Theatre, the current centerpiece of the Times Square restoration project. Or watch the "The Lion King" come to life on its stage of the 42nd street palace.

On first sight six months ago, at a performance of "King David," the Art Nouveau theater that once housed the Ziegfeld Follies gave me a major crick in my neck from looking up at its Wagner opera and Shakespearean play marble carvings. And that was only in the lobby.

Inside, bright frescoes and carved wood, featuring flowers and fruit, kept my eyes skyward and wide.

It's no less stunning now. What Disney, New York State and New York City wrought with $37 million was too much to be absorbed in a single visit.

Besides, this reviewer is still looking for the Mickey Mouse ears the whimsical architect has hidden somewhere in his work against the orders of Disney head Michael Eisner, who wanted no sign of the company to mar the restoration.

Still, the Disney organization hasn't invested a reported $15 million (some published figures place it as high as $20 million) lightly. "The Lion King" is not only the most highly-hyped show of the decade. It is also reputed to be the most expensive in Broadway history.

When the elephant lumbers down the aisle at the opening, gasps and applause fill the theater. There's a promise that the spectacle will exceed the falling chandelier of "Phantom of the Opera" and the helicopter of "Miss Saigon."

It does. Over and over, Disney delivers razzle dazzle, plus pomp and pageantry. On the latter score, tall grass rolls in and out. A tree lights up with a drawing of a lion. Assorted jet streams of hot air rise from the stage. At other junctures, strobe lights and smoke fill it.

"The Lion King" needs it. The coming-of-age story is about as fresh as yesterday's bread and as tiny as one of those sidekicks in Disney's animated film. As a Disney film, "King" was splendid, with cuddly cubs, comic meerkat and warthog, a villain to hiss at and tuneful songs galore.

Still, there's a predictable story at work. Young Simba believes he's responsible for the death of his proud and noble father, Mufasa, and exiles himself from kingdom. The culprit is actually the cub's greedy uncle, Scar, the late king's scruffy brother who inherits the kingdom. After many adventures, most of them with Timon, the meerkat, and Pumbaa, the warthog, Simba returns home to learn the truth and save the land from turning to dust.

The House of the Mouse could not have been wiser in choosing Julie Taymor, renowned for her puppetry, as the key figure for the project. The concept, which she carries out in her capacity as director, is brilliant. Sometimes the rods are seen too clearly, but in all, the gadgetry worked by the actors succeed so convincingly theatergoers forget humans are operating them. Taymor matched her puppets with vivid mask and costume designs. She received a hefty assist on the puppets and masks from co-designer Michael Curry.

Just as carefully chosen is the cast, starting with Samuel Wright, Sebastian the crafty crab from "The Little Mermaid." He brings majesty to Mufasa. Scar's villainy has been tempered in the performance of John Vickery. He's become more cynical and sounds a good deal like the caustic butler on TV's "The Nanny." Rather disappointing is the young Simba of Scott Irby-Ranniar, but when he grows into adulthood and is portrayed by Jason Raize, he's every inch a candidate to rule the land.

Winning ways continue with the work of Max Casella and Tom Alan Robbins as Timon and Pumbaa and the droll performance of Geoff Hoyle as Zazu, the king's emissary who tries to guide Simba.

Two songs have been added to the Elton John-Tim Rice score. Neither is memorable. That's all right since the only ones that count are the stirring "Circle of Life" and the bouncy "Hakuna Matata." In addition, the show proves to have a sense of humor - adding excerpts from "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue" into its musical mix.

Eminently theatrical, the stage adaptation of "The Lion King" entertains adults as well as the young, which couldn't be said of the animated film.

Is it worth $80 a pop for a Saturday night ticket? Probably - especially if seeing the restored New Amsterdam is part of the price. Many do. Tickets are scarce. It's the lone Broadway attraction that advertises "The cancellation line forms two hours before curtain."

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