Capsule Reviews

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 Race If the new Houston theatrical troupe GEMKNEM (pronounced "jim-nim") and its inaugural production is a herald for the quality to come, then unfurl the banners and blow those trumpets, because their first play is a doozy. Written and directed by George Oliver, Angela Watson and Dejamion McDowell, The Race is a provocative compilation of 13 playlets that confronts black reality head on. This production is superbly acted (and sung) by the writers themselves, along with Anthony Darden, Josette Harrison and Aurelia Holland. What supplies powerful new life to another play about such recurrent issues as drug use, absentee fathers, self-worth, prejudice, crime, gangsta culture and empty churches, among others, is that the authors focus their blistering lasers within the community. They laud personal responsibility, faith and family. Victimhood, seductive as it may be, is a relic of the past, as demonstrated in "Jim Crow and the Negro Display," an MTV-vaudeville number, and in the searing "Jones," in which Darden plays a pimp from hell who becomes a chilling force for evil, as he sells his vile elixir for "happiness," called Passion. The universal human spirit gets a phenomenal uplift in "Love Is a Scat and a Moan," a wordless operetta sung scat-style by McDowell and Harrison that details the truth of a relationship through courtship, pregnancy, breakup, reconciliation and childbirth. "And You Know How They Can Be" is a screamingly funny satire about reverse discrimination, as the black community is frightened to death by a lone white woman jogging through the 'hood. At the beginning of the show, the ensemble promises to make us think. They succeed gloriously, while also making us laugh, weep and recognize ourselves, whatever color. Through July 16 at SHAPE Community Center, 3815 Live Oak, 832-242-0156.

Wait Until Dark The Alley Theatre has gone slumming with its first "Summer Chills" production, Frederick Knott's really unbelievable thriller Wait Until Dark. You might remember the Audrey Hepburn movie, which was just as silly as the stage version, although Miss Hepburn was a spectacularly stylish Susy, the blind wife left alone with three crazed drug dealers out to find a missing doll stuffed with heroin. How this comes about takes all of Act I, while we wait with growing impatience as great chunks of exposition are forklifted about the stage to set the scene. For someone blind, staying alone in her basement apartment while her husband (Paul Hope) leaves the city on a ruse perpetrated by the bad guys, Susy (Elizabeth Heflin) is mighty resourceful and more clever than any of us would ever be in the same circumstances, except for the fact that she never locks her front door, through which the meanies (Kevin Kilner, Jeffrey Bean, and John Tyson) come and go as if through a turnstile. But she does realize (second sight?) that she'd better prepare for the onslaught to come. The only character who makes any sense is bratty little Gloria (Maureen Fenninger), Susy's upstairs neighbor, who gets all excited about being involved in something dangerous and thrilling. The convoluted play has holes large enough for Susy to drive a tractor trailer through, but it does come alive in the final confrontation, when she tries to level the playing field. But has Susy thought of everything? Unfortunately, waiting to find out isn't worth it. Through July 16. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

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