From the moment the Walt Disney Co. tapped avant-garde director and MacArthur “genius” grant-recipient Julie Taymor to design and direct the stage version of “The Lion King,” the musical was destined to differ from the first Disney stage hit, “Beauty and the Beast.” And different it is. Spectacularly so.
Birds fly, elephants lumber, gazelle’s leap. Indeed, a veritable jungle of costumed actors and life-sized puppet creatures great and small populate the stage in the show’s gorgeous opening sequence, “The Circle of Life.” After that, almost every scene unfolds with its own special magic, utilizing superb stagecraft and a dizzying, often mystifying array of theatrical techniques to bring the lion cub Simba’s adventures to life.
Taymor’s bold signature is the show’s essential strength, a sophisticated, stylized and accessible vision. This is no “kid’s show”: Taymor requires audiences to rise up to her level. When “Lion King” opens on Broadway Nov. 13, it will serve as a welcome reminder that effective theater has less to do with mind-blowing special effects than with teasing the mind into a state of wonder.
As one can imagine, the logistical challenges of bringing Disney’s popular animated feature to the stage are daunting. But Taymor’s solutions are often so simple and elegant — either that or fantastically, fiendishly complex — that they themselves ultimately are the show’s main attraction.
Indeed, watching “The Lion King” is in many ways like watching a magic act, with the audience constantly wondering what “impossible” trick Taymor has up her sleeve next.
To illustrate how the land is drying out during the drought caused by the rule of Scar, Mufasa’s murderous brother, a circular sheet of blue silk slowly disappears down a hole in the middle of the stage. In another scene, a giant waterfall effect is achieved simply through light rippling off a large piece of white fabric. In yet another, a mesmerizing swirl of amorphous blobs ooze around and come together to form a giant, talking, 3-D visage of King Mufasa’s head.
Literally hundreds of such exquisite details are sprinkled like diamonds throughout the production. And, of course, there are the brilliantly conceived big production numbers: the great gathering of bloodthirsty hyenas dancing in the elephant boneyard, making anarchic, metalhead mayhem; the love scene between Simba and Nala, in which pairs of love sprites float through the air over a designer jungle of green and fuschia; and, of course, the thunderous wildebeest stampede, which rolls toward the audience in a tidal wave of increasingly enormous masks.
And yet, for all the spectacle, the actors do get the opportunity to act. Rather than lumber around in fuzzy animal suits (the obvious “Beauty and the Beast” approach) the principal characters wear masks that sit atop their heads, allowing their faces — and humanity — to show. This works well to engage the audience with the characters, and each member of the cast performs a little anthropomorphic magic themselves.
Samuel E. Wright is a formidable but compassionate presence as King Mufasa; Scott Irby-Ranniar brings out the playful boyishness in Young Simba and, later, Jason Raize zeros in on Simba’s adolescent frustrations. John Vickery is a playfully despicable Scar, and both Max Casella and Tom Alan Robbins, as Timon and Pumbaa, Simba’s jungle pals, provide ample doses of comic relief.
As for music, the percussive, African-inspired rhythm-and-choral numbers provided by Lebo M (who won a Grammy for the musical score to the movie in 1994) stand out. By comparison, most of the actual songs (including three new ones penned by Elton John and Tim Rice) are pleasant, innocuous diversions at best, though the kids seem to enjoy the youthful vitality of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” not to mention the hyena’s hilarious anthem to carnivorousness, “Chow Down.”
If there is a caveat, it’s that the stage version has primarily become a platform for displaying Taymor’s undeniable artistic genius. Except for the plot, no pretense of mimicking the movie is made. This is definitely JULIE TAYMOR’S “Lion King” — Disney just gave her the go-ahead, and she took off like a stampede.