A Jungle Out There

by Michael Grossberg, Theater Critic
Published in The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, OH)
March 26, 1998

NEW YORK — Masks, puppets, mime, dance and junglelike behavior make an animated film come to African life in The Lion King, the hottest musical on Broadway.

“We don’t just become animals onstage,” Jason Raize (Simba) said during the recent New York meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association. “We become the duality of a human and an animal. That’s Julie Taymor’s vision: that the audience will see the animal in the human and the human in the animal.”

Taymor — the director, costume designer and co-designer of masks and puppets — has received the most credit for the celebrated stage version of the most popular animated Disney film.

A recipient of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and two Obie awards, Taymor developed her distinctive approach — a fusion of puppetry, fantasy, multicultural motifs, cinematic close-ups and vertiginous scenes — in two other musicals: Juan Darien — A Carnival Mass and The Green Bird.

Thirteen lead actors and 31 chorus members learned to blend symbolic movements and rhythms “to express human emotion as well as animalistic instinct,” Raize said.

South African vocalist Tsidii Le Loka views her character, Rafiki, as the “moral conscience.”

“The character is part baboon, but my internal touchstone to create the character was a shaman, doctor or healer in the African tradition of shamans,” she said. “More than getting the comedy by taking the baboon aspect, I wanted to establish the dignity and integrity of the role.”

Mufasa is seen “more as a man with a mask rather than a masked man,” said Samuel E. Wright, who plays the aging lion king.

Wright portrayed Dizzy Gillespie in Bird, voiced Sebastian in The Little Mermaid and earned a Tony nomination for The Tap Dance Kid.

“We didn’t just walk in and crawl around to become these creatures in this wonderful fable,” he said. “It took quite awhile for Julie to help us perfect it so that as performers we didn’t feel silly. The last thing I wanted to do was put on a Bert Lahr suit and walk around onstage as the ‘king of the forest.’

“Rather, I fell in love with the animal-human identity and approached it from the perspective of a warrior king leading his people.”

The ingenious, flexible approach to theatrical masks allows most cast members to wear them without hiding their faces.

The masks, co-designed by frequent Taymor collaborator Michael Curry, are worn above the head. They swing away from the face for more personal moments or are moved up and down with hand-held controls.

“That combination of image and movements can make it look quite realistic,” said Wright, who manipulates his mask dramatically in confronting the evil Scar.

To become convincing animals onstage, the actors quickly discovered the need to move slowly and smoothly.

“We couldn’t just jerk our heads around, or the masks would look silly,” Raize said. “I’m very expressive in my adolescent Angst, but, when I walk around with my ‘head’ down, all they see is the lion.”

Meeting with critics, Wright and Raize passed around their massive, surprisingly light masks.

“Mine looks like it weighs a ton — and I try to make it look even heavier onstage — but it actually weighs less than a pound,” Wright said.

The elaborate masks, covered with skin and feathers, look organic but are made of ultra-light materials such as graphite and plastic.

“To show how light they are,” he said, “my mask almost doubles in weight when the miniature microphone transmitter is placed on top.”

For the auditions, the costumes and masks were much larger and heavier.

“They wanted people who wouldn’t balk at putting these masks on their head or flying like a gazelle.”

Besides the masks, few elements needed to be changed during the initial two-month tryout in Minneapolis or monthlong Broadway preview before the November opening.

“The first time the actors walked through the Minneapolis theater swinging kite birds while singing the a cappella African number was so amazing,” Raize said. “For me, the spirit of The Lion King, of the birds representing freedom, came together then.”

“Usually when a show has that much time in previews, scenes get cut and new scenes written,” Wright said. “Rather than spending time hacking away at the show, we polished the performances and smoothed out the kinks. You have to know when it’s time to stop tweaking.”

The actors praised Disney for returning to Broadway after its initial success with the stage version of Beauty and the Beast.

“People pick on the juggernaut of a huge company, but you can’t have monumental art without monumental support,” Wright said. “Disney and Julie both gambled, but the gamble has paid off with a huge hit.”