The beast that is “The Lion King” has come to London, and a beautiful thing it is, too. Arriving nearly two years after I caught the show late in previews in New York, the show’s second English-language staging confirms Julie Taymor’s ravishing overhaul of the Disney animated film as a high-water mark in the commercial theater. Does that make “The Lion King” a great musical? Sadly not, given the inescapable banality of the material that is its source. But Taymor’s vision for the piece remains a great and lasting one that should find Britons fighting for a glimpse of Pride Rock no less avidly than their Broadway brethren.
It won’t hurt, of course, that many of the key creators of the show are British, starting with the extraordinary designer Richard Hudson and extending to the primary composer-lyricist team of Elton John and Tim Rice, even if their contributions — to this observer, anyway — are eclipsed by Lebo M., chief purveyor of the musical’s shimmering African pulse.
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Even more impressive on second viewing are the numerous creative fusions that “The Lion King” represents — not just of English and American talent (by this point a virtual commonplace) but of time-honored Eastern stagecraft and contemporary Western theatrical knowhow, the avant-garde and the commercial, the not-for-profit and the corporate, and, most crucially, of white and black in arguably the most thoroughly multicultural stage show that the mainstream theater has yet encountered.
Can a (mostly) British cast cut it? The answer most assuredly is yes, even if some fleeting press night snafus indicated that the crew is probably still adjusting to what must be a technical nightmare. But from the instant that Josette Bushell-Mingo belts out the Zulu-speaking Rafiki’s opening words and the amazing menagerie that is “Circle of Life” starts to fill the theater, it’s clear that London’s “Lion King” constitutes its own impressive entity, not some pro forma clone of what worked back home.
It’s hardly news at this late date to extol visual invention that draws upon so many disparate influences — from masks to puppetry to a Peter Brook-style minimalism of a highly developed, even fanciful order — that the miracle lies in their ability to coalesce. Everyone will have favorite moments. (I remain partial to the so-called “Gazelle Wheel,” not to mention the lineup of ostriches and giraffes resembling a Miro sculpture run riot.) But what amazes more on each viewing is the creative team’s talent for intimacy and quiet amid so assured a behemoth. This is a musical whose scenic coup de theatres are as frequently found in shadows and silhouettes as they are in Big Statements, of which “The Lion King,” the jutting promontory of Pride Rock notwithstanding, has gratefully little.
If the look of the show is ever more astounding, its text most certainly is not, with the result that one is aware of the production not so much enhancing the core material as deflecting attention away from the frequent inanity of it. (Is it my imagination or have Pumbaa’s fart jokes been embellished for Britain, a land long known for its affection for allthings flatulent?) For all the putative affinities to “Hamlet” and a rather droll T.S. Eliot quip, “The Lion King” is no more interested in language than the more directly Eliot-inspired “Cats.” It’s Taymor and Co.’s genius, however, that such a shortfall hardly matters set against an abiding interest in a realm beyond language — the wordless wonder of theatricality at its most primal.
The result can make it tricky for players-cum-puppeteers who end up merely animating a set or mobilizing a crucial prop, both of which “The Lion King” asks its cast to do: hyenas or cheetahs one minute, palm trees and grasslands the next. So it’s a joy to find the 46-strong London lineup confidently kick-started into action by Bushell-Mingo, who substitutes sheer force of vocal attack for the indelible Tsidii Le Loka’s impish command as the ever-wise and eccentric baboon. Playing the murdered Mufasa, who lives on in the lion cub-turned-king Simba, Cornell John sings with such unforced dignity that you wish he were around longer — not least so as to allay the ludicrously camp Scar of Rob Edwards, the villain here reduced to pantomime baddie.
In general, the acting is somewhat broader and looser than in New York, which may not altogether be a bad thing, since it staves off potential self-importance. The meerkat-warthog double-act of Martyn Ellis and Roger Wright prompts a grin with every return visit — not always the case with characters intended as comic relief. As young Simba, Luke Youngblood projects such energy — and flashes such an aimed-at-the-balcony grin — that one half expects Mama Rose to come hurtling down the aisle urging the 13-year-old dynamo on. (The production in all has six Young Simbas and Young Nalas in accordance with British law governing child actors, who may only do a total of 40 performances each.) It’s a mild surprise, then, when — during “Hakuna Matata” — Youngblood yields the stage to the bland if muscly adult Simba of Roger Wright, who is in turn outclassed by his Nala (Paulette Ivory), whose rapturous rendition of “Shadowland” rightly stops the second act.
The performers for the most part are distinctive parts of an enchanting whole whose lapses — the Chippendale-ish contortions of “Be Prepared,” accompanied by jets of steam; the inevitable treacle of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” — are so brief that barely a moment has passed before another exotic image or sound is holding us transfixed. That’s the prevailing method of a musical that points the way forward by harking all the way back via an appeal to the imagination, which is where the theater’s enduring power to transform truly lies.