Three full years after opening on Broadway, “The Lion King” finally receives its second U.S. production at the grandly restored Pantages in Los Angeles, a city that has for several years proven a graveyard for open-ended theatrical runs. The combination of Disney pedigree, a title about as familiar as Adam and Eve, African-influenced music, Asian-influenced puppetry, and critical salivations — well deserved — for Julie Taymor’s direction, deliver a broad appeal that sets this show commercially a world apart from any other. A magnificent spectacle, rich with visual splendors, “The Lion King” will reign in the City of Angels for some time to come.
So how good is the stage version of “The Lion King,” really? It’s by no means perfect, but resist the hype as much as you will, the show remains beautifully stimulating as a pageant of theatrical imagination. The flaws in the story, and the pleasant, but by no means transporting, music from Elton John, Tim Rice and others, are completely overwhelmed by the triumphant design and the invigorating creativity of the stagecraft.
From the opening number, “Circle of Life,” forward, Taymor creates a convincing animal kingdom, populated with leaping gazelles (a personal favorite), elephants, giraffes, lions and others. The masks and puppetry, created by Taymor and Michael Curry, make no effort to disguise the actors, and this decision alone keeps the show from becoming a visit to Disneyland.
The performers are excellent, many making easy the complex interaction between puppetry, voice and character. Danny Rutigliano charms endlessly as meerkat Timon, who with his flatulent warthog buddy, Pumbaa (a very likable Bob Bouchard), raises the young Simba (highly talented 11-year-old Adrian Diamond, who alternates performances) after the cub runs away following the death of his father Mufasa (Rufus Bonds Jr.). John Vickery portrays the evil uncle Scar with a juicy glee.
In the second act, Moe Daniels, as the adult love-interest Nala, reignites the show with her powerhouse voice, and Fuschia, as the monkey Rafiki, anchors the thematic throughline without ever letting it get too heavy, and sings with a joyous exuberance that sets the tone. Clifton Oliver, as the grown Simba, seems to know that while he’s the narrative center, he’s not the one who gets to steal the show, and his performance is confident and generous.
Still, it’s the designs — including Richard Hudson’s colorful sets and Donald Holder’s lighting — that are the truest stars. And after introducing most of the animal creations in that opening march through the aisles, Taymor continues to find multiple ways of presenting the population of Pride Rock.
Many of the animals actually have different incarnations. Timon, for example, appears primarily as a human-size string puppet, but at other times is represented as a shadow puppet and a marionette. Even when it seems the pleasure of the costumes has been exhausted, Taymor shows a different angle that renews the vibrancy. Late in the second act, we see silhouetted hyenas in profile, and the effect is breathtaking.
And the simple but striking use of perspective for the climactic stampede — using larger and larger puppets as the herd moves downstage, with drums beating heavily from percussionists on both sides of the stage — is nothing short of startling.
The show has weaknesses, it’s just that everybody already knows what they are. To analyze beneath the surface of the storytelling, “The Lion King” is a problematic piece of work, although the stage show certainly lessens some of the more disturbing qualities of the film, which received accusations of racism and homophobia. This version incorporates a mostly black cast and African modes of storytelling, music and visual motifs.
At moments, the scenes can feel like an extravagant episode of “Sesame Street,” although there’s not really anything wrong with that. And there’s a certain cheesiness to the romantic number, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” where dancing male and female foliage fly in and entangle, but overall Garth Fagan’s choreography is one of the show’s many pleasures.
Some of the dramatic beats feel a bit rushed — truth is, this production’s much better when it’s being abstract than when it’s being literal. You gotta love that dancing grass. And those delightful giraffes. And that graceful leopard. And a lot more.