The Lion King The Elton John/Tim Rice international mega-hit returns to Houston, with all its glaring faults and scenic wonders intact. For its transfer to the stage in 1997, the Disney cartoon was given a novel update by avant-garde theater director Julie Taymor, who was given free rein in her vision. She borrowed extensively from Asian theatrical practices (Bunraku, masks, Javanese shadow work and silkscreen) and her own unique puppet work to fill the stage with magical animal apparitions -- lumbering elephants, bird kites that soar overhead, dancers with gazelles strapped to their arms and heads to make it look like they're bounding across the savanna three at a time, graceful giraffes made of stilts, a seductive panther, colorful ostriches, a stampeding herd of wildebeests. There is no more magical opening moment in all of Broadway than the "Circle of Life" number, in which the entire African panoply moves down the aisles and up onto the stage. It takes your breath away, no doubt about it. Unfortunately, the rest of the show can't compare to these sublime first minutes; it falls far short in story development. Fleshed out by additional chants and tribal-inspired music by Lebo M and snippets from Hans Zimmer's film score, Elton John's innocuous songs sound anemic and ill-fitting in this production. What's left is a gargantuan kiddie show -- oh, the fart jokes -- with a million-dollar price tag and eye-popping visuals. It's over-amplified and noisy in the extreme, and villain Scar never has a moment when he's not shouting. The cast is attractive, though, with more pumped pecs and biceps on display than Naked Boys Singing. Throughout it all -- and it weighs in at a stately two and a half hours -- the kids will stay awake, as will their parents, because the visual sumptuousness is incomparable and the wonder of theater's magic is fully on display. Through August 13. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-629-3700.
The Tempest One of the sweetest lines Shakespeare ever wrote comes from The Tempest, a romance that takes place on an enchanted island rich with spirits, monsters and young lusty love. The line comes toward the end of the story, when Prospero, the central character who learns the simple virtues of forgiveness and faith, reminds us all that we "we are such stuff as dreams are made on." It is a magical moment in the Houston Shakespeare Festival's magical production of what is commonly thought to be the great bard's last play. From the opening scene, director Sidney Berger shapes this lyrical play with a charmed imagination. And the cast Berger has put together is terrific. Ken Ruta's Prospero has a long and bony face, shaped with lines and crevices of wisdom. And he speaks with a musical voice, never shouting, always melodious. Justin Doran plays Ferdinand, a young man in love, with boyish humor. And Rutherford Cravens, who plays Stephano, a drunk butler who imagines himself a prince among men, pockets the entire show every time he stumbles out on stage. The Shakespeare Festival, now at Miller Outdoor Theatre, generally opens during the last weekend of July, an almost painful time of the year in Houston's weather. But with productions like this one, the warm evening breeze feels wonderfully enchanting. Through August 12. 100 Concert Dr., 281-373-3386.
Titus Andronicus The companion tragedy running with The Tempest at Miller Outdoor Theater is Shakespeare's macabre Titus Andronicus. The bloodiest of all of Shakespeare's plays, the story about a great Roman general's undoing revels in violence and gore. By the end so many dead bodies fill up the stage that the only characters still alive have to step over them to get anywhere. It's not only the number of dead that makes this play so wicked, it's the horrific manner in which some are mutilated that makes all this so outrageous. There's the usual and multiple stabbings and hangings, and a few hands get chopped off, but when boys commit rape while giggling madly and a mother dines on her own children, we know we've crossed over into territory that feels somehow weirdly modern in our new millennium of graphic horror. Director Carolyn Houston Boone has found some clever ways of dealing with this over-the-top tale that play down the violence while adding to the creep factor of all this blood. Chopped-up bodies in plastic bags, severed heads bobbing about in a fish tank, and bloody stumps all appear on stage and look as surprisingly and beautifully theatrical as they are disturbing. The cast develops Boone's ideas with solid performances. Two standouts include Rutherford Cravens, who makes a powerful Titus, and Matthew Carter, who plays the ridiculous Saturninus with savagely Bacchanalian glee. In the end, all the death and destruction leaves one oddly delighted. There is an almost campy quality to this gruesome tale about revenge. And it's a strange joy to see it executed with such wild imagination. Through August 12. 100 Concert Dr., 281-373-3386.
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