The Pride of Broadway

Julie Taymor was an unusual choice to turn Disney's animated Lion King into a flesh-and-blood musical. The award-winning director's past productions ran the gamut from Asian folk tales to Shakespeare, and she used puppets and masks in surprising ways to tell her narratives. This was not a woman who would simply transcribe the movie into its theatrical twin, as had happened with Beauty and the Beast. Taymor went on to win two Tonys for her groundbreaking work in The Lion King, one for direction and one for the costumes she designed. And you need sit through only the first number of her production now at Jones Hall to understand what all the hoopla is about.

The show opens with grand pageantry and some of the most striking visual images ever seen on stage. The shaman baboon Rafiki -- played by Fredi Walker-Browne, who has a gorgeously growly voice -- stands in a single spot of light and howls out the opening notes of "Circle of Life" with haunting clarity. In a moment she is answered by two strong-chested rams in great masks topped with red horns, their muscular arms painted in rich tribal colors. Oh, did we mention they're singing from the balcony? The call and response of the song continues as other animals spill into the theater from every corner. Long-necked giraffes stroll in on tall, bony legs built from stilts and wires and orange flowing fabric. Big-winged birds swoop down over the audience, fluttering in wide blue and red and violet circles as they drift toward the stage. A herd of elk leaps across the horizon. An enormous rhino lumbers down one aisle; here comes an elephant -- big as life -- down the other. The creatures are all singing and stomping, and the drums are pounding and the sun is rising high. Leopard and dove move in harmony and sing a joyful song to the circle of life.

Disney's Lion King is a charming fable, filled with noble simplicity, heart-tugging sentiment and a mystical, feel-good message that says everything in life has a purpose -- even the ever-present Mr. Death. The entire menagerie under King Mufasa's rule, from the roaring lionesses to the leaping gazelles, lives in ontological bliss. Here on the African veld, all endings are beginnings. The circle of life ensures that the living need the dead and the dead come back through the living.

Young Simba is the luckiest of all these happy animals, scampering with his lion king dad across the kingdom that will one day be his. Unless, of course, evil Uncle Scar has anything to say about it. Lounging in the noontime shadows with the foolish hyenas, Scar plots his course to power in the lion pride. Before all is said and done, Simba and Scar will claw it out for Mufasa's crown. It's a simple story, told in just 75 gloriously animated minutes by the family-friendly folks at Disney. By contrast, Taymor has pushed the stage play's length to nearly three hours.

The opening scene reveals both the power and the failure of Taymor's production. From the beginning it's clear that the masks and puppets and beautifully painted costumes -- resplendent with rows upon rows of tiny shimmering beads and framed by the almost transcendent quality of Donald Holder's lights and Richard Hudson's minimalist sets -- are the true stars of this production. Amazing things happen on this stage: An entire herd of wildebeests stampedes through a gorge, a pride of lionesses hunts down a gazelle, African flowers bloom before our eyes. But for all these breathtaking visual delights, Taymor's version of the story is somehow less emotionally satisfying than its cartoon counterpart.

The actors, who all possess powerful singing voices and extraordinary grace, spend a lot of time manipulating their masks and puppet pieces. These pieces have plenty of fascinating hinges and strings that allow the characters to bend down or open their eyes or even weep, but they too often seem to get in the way of the story rather than helping to tell it. At the most emotional moment of the play, when Mufasa (Alton Fitzgerald White) tells Simba how much he loves him and how precious life is, White removes his mask so that Mufasa can be more intimate with his son.

Even the jokes suffer a bit in theatrical translation. John Plumpis and Blake Hammond, as Simba's respective sidekicks Timon and Pumbaa, would be much funnier if they were not acting behind life-size puppets (which look, by the way, an awful lot like their animated counterparts).

Despite these disappointments, Taymor's version of The Lion King offers its audience a look at an astonishingly inventive visual vernacular. The opening alone is worth the three hours it takes to sit through the tale.

In celebration of its fifth anniversary, The Masquerade Theatre brings Stephen Sondheim's dark and musically complex Sweeney Todd to its tiny stage. Sung by Masquerade favorite Luther Chakurian, Todd is the 19th-century "demon barber of Fleet Street" who sets out to avenge his long, lonely and unjust incarceration by the evil Judge Turpin (Ilich Guardiola). He ends up destroying himself, but not before he has sliced open a good number of whiskered throats.

Hats off to director/producer Phillip Duggins for attempting to cobble together a production of this difficult musical in his low-budget space. Over the years, Duggins and Masquerade have earned a reputation for being able to do a lot with what seems like very little.

One of the theater's strengths is Duggins's ability to collect strong singers. Certainly Chakurian is as powerful as ever in the role of the crazed barber. The rest of the cast sings well, too. The chorus of London ragamuffins is especially impressive during large numbers such as "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," establishing gorgeous dark harmonies as they tell Todd's terrible story.

But the casting seems strained at best in some of the more important roles. The girlishly charming Rebekah Dahl is much too bright and youthful to bring out the dirty undertones in Mrs. Lovett's slimy character. Dahl is funny and her voice is full and round, but the fearsomeness in Sondheim's story is somehow lost on her. Likewise, Michael Ross, as the lovesick Anthony, carries himself too much like a modern-day college boy to make his Victorian swooning feel truthful. Ross's beautiful tenor wraps warmly around the difficult song "Johanna," but there's no passion to it.

Still, though some of the heart is missing, Duggins's production is musically impressive and full of gumption. That alone makes this fifth anniversary something to celebrate.

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Lee Williams