The Lion King: A Brilliant Collaboration of Theatrical Geniuses

See our interview with Buyi Zama, who plays the wise baboon shaman Rafiki.

The setup:

Courtesy of Gexa Energy Broadway, Disney's The Lion King roars into town with its menagerie of spectacle, stagecraft and human emotions grafted onto a pride of lions, showcasing what inventive minds can accomplish with apparently unlimited funds and unlimited imaginations.

The execution:

After an opening with the mandrill Rifiki, a quasi-shaman, celebrating the birth of a lion cub to the jungle's ruler, we are treated to a panoply of animal puppetry brought to exciting life by human actors. Some, like the giraffes and even the elephant, are remarkably realistic, and others more deliberately transparent but convincing because of their movements, such as the prancing oryxes and the singularly menacing and seductive cheetah. And there are solitary singers in the higher loges and birds fluttering in the sky and drummers on African tom-toms in the lower loges, and the animals parade down the aisle and enter to crowd the stage with delight. The spectacle grabs the audience by the throat, no, the heart, and almost never lets go.

I'm sure you know the plot by heart and, yes, it is a twist on the ancient old lion/young lion theme -- here, literally. But the struggle for power is a subsidiary theme, and the real drama comes from the love between the boy lion Simba and Mufasa, his father and ruler of the jungle. There is an uncle, Scar, who is crippled with envy, an Iago in fur, and his machinations fuel what plot there is. He has the hyenas on his side, and they are a marvel of fascination, evil and adroit and brilliantly imagined and all-too-human -- you may know some of them. A young lioness, Nala, is a pal to Simba in the first Act, and becomes more in Act II, for the lions have grown to maturity during the interval. An amusing but feckless hornbill, Zazu, tries to watch over Simba and provides comic relief, but at the end of Act I, the young Simba is befriended by a meerkat, Timon, and a warthog, Pumbaa, and they are eminently likable and amusing, and play important roles in Act Two.

This is a musical but also a ballet, and the choreography by Garth Fagan is striking and hugely important to its power and charm. Even the grasslands move rhythmically, and a sudden snarl and a lunge by an animal can be dramatic. The attention to detail is painstaking -- not only is a watery stream created onstage, but it has fish swimming in it as well. And, after a wet misadventure, Timon emerges with a fish in his mouth, which he tosses to Pumbaa, who catches it, and this is but one moment of many when the audience roars with pleasure.

The songs are integral to the plot, and wonderful, but I especially liked the exuberant "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," the evil "Chow Down" and (of course) the haunting "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" The music and lyrics are by Elton John and Tim Rice, and the direction and costume design are by Julie Taymor, and she and Michael Curry designed the entrancing masks and puppets. The book ranges from the poetic to the vernacular, and even sinks to the level of vaudeville, but oddly enough, this works as comic relief without undermining the majesty of the concept; these talents have created a world, and we enter gladly into it. At its end, we have come to know and love these characters, and leaving the theater was like parting reluctantly from old friends.

The cast members are all superb. Young Simba is performed by Zavion J. Hill and Adante Power, and mature Simba by Jelani Remy. Young Nala is portrayed by Kailah McFadden and Sade Phillip-Demorcy and mature Nala by Nokubonga Khuzwayo. Mark David Kaplan is Zazu, Nick Cordelione is Timon, Ben Lipitz is Pumbaa and Buyi Zama is Rafiki. J. Anthony Crane plays Scar so effectively that his bow was accorded some boos as well, and Dionne Randolph was wise and powerful as Mufasa. It's easy to see why The Lion King is the top-grossing B'way show of all time, almost a billion dollars to date and still going strong.

The verdict:

A brilliant collaboration of theatrical geniuses has created an awesome blockbuster of overwhelming pleasure. Even better than you can imagine, see it at all costs.

The Lion King continues through August 12 at Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For ticketing or information, call 800-952-6560 or contact the company website.

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Jim Tommaney