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 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus starts off with a bang, literally. A great red tube lights up, and after an enormously loud and smoky flash, out shoot Brian and Tina Miser, human cannonballs, who go flying across Reliant Stadium in a wild red-and-white costumed swoosh. Unfortunately, after they bounce-land onto their house-size twin air mattresses, the show pretty much goes downhill. The parade of trained animals (who all look fairly miserable, truth be told), tightrope walkers and trapeze artists -- all beautiful and strong -- just don't inspire that much awe is this day and age. Belo, the daredevil clown who appears throughout the show with his blond hair spiking straight up in the air, is amusing and a little bit scary. In one act, he bounces off a diving board into a big pool of balls; another time he goes walking in a "whirling Vortex of Vertigo" (a high-flying hamster wheel, as the little girl in the audience put it), but none of this is enough to revive the tired two hours of showtime. And since the packages of stale cotton candy cost $10 and the bottles of soda sell for close to $4 (don't even ask about the hot dogs), it's hard not to remember that P.T. Barnum is most famous for telling us there's a sucker born every minute. Through July 23 at Reliant Stadium, One Reliant Park, 713-629-3700.
Smoke on the Mountain The highly entertaining and sweetly sentimental Smoke on the Mountain may be A.D. Players' best show of the season. Connie Ray and Alan Bailey's charming musical takes the audience back to the '30s, when bluegrass gospel was in its heyday. The show opens on Reverend Oglethorpe (Marty Blair), the young pastor of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina. It's Saturday night, and he has asked the Sanders Family Singers to grace his flock with a night of joyful music praising the Lord. Only trouble is, the singing group is late. Nervously eyeballing the door, Oglethorpe kills time by preaching a bit, telling us all that God "scratches where the world itches." Turns out a little preaching is all that's needed, for soon enough the entertainment shows up. And after recovering from a little bus accident, they fill up the stage with some of the best bluegrass you're likely to hear anywhere in town this summer. Guitars, a stand-up base, a washboard, a mandolin, a cow bell -- you name it, the Sanders family knows how to play it. It's even fun to hear the testifying each family member does between songs. The cast features some lovely singers, including Gerry Poland as the saved sinner Uncle Stanley Sanders, and Karen Hodgin as June Sanders, the mother hen who tells a hysterical story featuring a june bug tied to a string. There's some conflict over whether the Sanders should be dancing on stage -- folks don't dance in the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. But mostly everybody stays in high spirits, and a wonderful time is had by all. Through August 27 at the Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.