Leaping far beyond its celluloid inspiration, the stage version improves upon nearly every aspect of the hit 1994 animated film, from visual artistry and storytelling to Lebo M’s score and the newly African-ized pop songs of Elton John and Tim Rice. With this production, the Walt Disney Co. stages itself as a serious and ambitious contender on the legit scene, all but demanding that its first theatrical foray, 1994’s too-literally adapted “Beauty and the Beast,” was little more than a warm-up.
And “The Lion King” is a victory for Taymor as well (or perhaps above all). A MacArthur Foundation “genius,” Taymor has long been known in New York theater circles for her eye-popping puppetry and visual effects, yet her previous work, including last season’s “Juan Darien,” seemed more than a bit taken with its own cerebral heft. No such chilliness here: Playful and warm, funny and exciting, “The Lion King” will enchant children and adults in equal measure. Disney and Broadway have found a box office bonanza that in every likelihood will run for years.
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Employing her trademark mix of various puppet, mask and costume techniques, Taymor presents a “Lion King” that is true to the look of Disney’s animation while incorporating a stronger African design, somehow blending her influences into a style that is uniquely her own (in addition to directing, she designed the costumes and shares a credit with Michael Curry on the masks and puppets). Richard Hudson’s exquisitely streamlined sets and Donald Holder’s deep, rich lighting contribute to a production that wears every penny of its $15 million-plus cost. And wears it well.
The first seconds of the show are as simple as they are stirring. Against a midnight-blue sky, Rafiki (Tsidii Le Loka), the baboon (here presented as more shaman than simian, and, unlike the movie, made female), begins a call-and-response African chant song with singers perched high up in the New Amsterdam Theater’s opera seats. As the nighttime backdrop gives way to a brilliant orange morning and the chant segues into the hit “Circle of Life,” the show begins in earnest with a stunning coup de theatre: Two parades (one in either aisle) of giraffes, leopards, antelope, rhinos, elephants and other jungle creatures march from the back of the auditorium to the stage, an entrance that is unquestionably the most pulse-quickening on Broadway in years.
As it will later do with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the show transforms “Circle of Life” from the treacly single version recorded by Elton John into a sweeping choral number that, like much else to come, recalls the lush harmonies and complex percussion of South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Additional music was penned by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Taymor and Hans Zimmer, and while the exact degree of collaboration (particularly among John, Rice and South African composer Lebo M) most likely will stay a Disney secret, audiences won’t care a whit — the score is a seamless meld of pop and authentic-sounding African music, not only accessible but worthy of repeated listening (a cast CD, in stores now, guarantees Disney of another cash stream).
But it isn’t just the music that opens “Lion King” with a roar. The animal creations that amble through the audience are nothing less than works of art, impressionistic and utterly graceful. Some are puppets — a wooden, Bunraku-style leopard, leaping antelope — while others are costumes — men on stilts for the giraffes, a huge elephant with a man in each leg. As often as not, the boundaries between costume, puppetry and mask are blurred, if not obliterated, in inventions that draw audible gasps from the audience.
Characters more cartoony, though just as impressive, will come as the story follows the familiar outline of the movie. Mufasa (Samuel E. Wright), the Lion King, and his queen Sarabi (Gina Breedlove) present newborn cub and future king Simba to jungle society, much to the consternation of Mufasa’s evil brother Scar (John Vickery), who wants the crown for himself. Enlisting the aid of the sniveling, much-despised hyenas, Scar, by intermission, will have murdered the king, banished little Simba and taken over the pride with despotic ruthlessness.
You don’t have to be a Disney fanatic to know that Simba will return, wiser and stronger, to take his rightful place, nor to see that Taymor, along with book writers Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, has very effectively fleshed out the 75-minute film plot with character development (seriously) and more than a little Shakespearean intrigue (the show manages to make unstated references to Hamlet and Prince Hal without seeming heavy-handed).
Nor is Disney lost in the mix. Fully on display is the studio’s traditional panoply of comic relief characters (the vaudeville pairing of wiseguy meerkat Timon and lumbering warthog Pumbaa), spunky love interests (lioness cub Nala) and scary villains (Scar and his troops of Fascist hyenas). Disney’s cartoons have never shied away from the horrific, and the stage show is no different, with the stampeding death of Mufasa all the more powerful since the father-son relationship has been so better established than in the movie.
The wildebeest stampede is one of various set pieces (a waterfall, Mufasa’s face wondrously forming in the night sky, among many others) that will have audiences buzzing — and the stage trickery used in their creation won’t be spoiled here. Anyway, it’s the endless stream of lovely, smaller touches — a smattering of fireflies, a blue silk lake that evaporates into the stage during a drought — that prevent “Lion King” from lurching scene to scene, big moment to big moment.
Finally, what should not be overshadowed by the stunning physical production and terrific score is an ensemble that ranks with the best currently on Broadway. With a mask that variously sits atop his head and moves over his face, Vickery is a wickedly funny Scar, not quite as effete as his movie counterpart but no less savage. Wright, as the proud, loving Mufasa, couldn’t be better, and South African vocalist Loka, as the spiritual baboon, is a show-stopper. Max Casella, best known as the smart aleck Vinnie on TV’s “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” makes an attention-grabbing Broadway bow as the wisecracking meerkat Timon, easily matching the fondly remembered celluloid incarnation by Nathan Lane. Casella, costumed and painted entirely green as he skillfully operates the meerkat puppet, exemplifies a production design that invites the audience to watch both the actors and the creatures they manipulate.
At the center of the story is the cub himself, and Taymor is fortunate to have found two young actors who are up to the roar. Scott Irby-Ranniar plays the first act’s young Simba, dancing and singing with the precocious affability of Jackson 5-vintage Michael Jackson. Jason Raize takes over as the teenage Simba, athletic, cocky and strong-voiced. Both actors are well-served by Garth Fagan’s delightful choreography.
Is “The Lion King” perfect? Of course not. A second-act ballet, featuring dancers suspended in mid-air, is unintentionally campy, and, surprisingly, one of the film’s more popular songs, “Hakuna Matata,” seems a bit rushed. Perhaps a few minutes could be trimmed here and there, but only a jackal would whine about such things. “The Lion King” is a show that will introduce a new generation of children to the theater, and doesn’t sacrifice a drop of intelligence, integrity or sophistication to do it.