The Lion King at the Orpheum Theatre

J. Anthony Crane as Scar and Dionne Randolph as Mufasa in The Lion King. Photo by Joan Marcus.

“I don’t do children’s theater,” director Julie Taymor informed the powers-that-be at the vaunted Disney Corporation “and I don’t do cute.”

To their immense credit, they hired her anyway.  The inventive Ms. Taymor then proceeded to transform the animated Disney film, with its simple story of a young lion, Simba, coming into his own as king of Pride Rock, falling in love with Nala, forming rich emotional attachments to Timon and the flatulently lovable Pumbaa, into one of the great musicals of our age.  Taymor’s The Lion King (at the Orpheum, through Feb 12) is a breath-taking swirl of African-inflected choreography, astonishing puppetry, colorful design, gorgeous songwriting.  Her masterwork is long but never repetitive, always imaginative, mesmerizing.

The rough magic of The Lion King is completely visible: we see the guide ropes, the flying cables, the painted scrims.  We see the puppet operators, the people spinning the birds, walking the giraffes, riding the leaping gazelle bicycles.  The characters all wear masks, but we are fully cognizant of the human actors.  Taymor and fellow puppeteer Michael Curry have done yeoperson work.  The puppets amaze.

The other designers support them brilliantly: Richard Hudson‘s sets, Donald Holder‘s lights, Taymor’s costumes, Michael Ward‘s make-up, Steve Kennedy‘s sound, Garth Fagan‘s excellent choreography.  I still get goose-flesh thinking of the second act effect whereby stars, projected onto the hanging leaves, coalesce into the (huge) image of the dead Mufasa, as Simba peers into the reflecting pool.  I’ve no idea how the designers accomplished this, but it thrills.

And the songs!  Elton John and Tim Rice‘s sweet and catchy tunes are niftily expanded upon by Hans Zimmer, Lebo M, Taymor (again), and Jay Rifkin.  These latter composers create haunting African chants and lovely dance music.

One of the great pleasure of a show like The Lion King, with its emphasis on dance and puppetry, is that the performers are in fabulous physical condition, lithe and muscular, very easy on the eyes.  The show uses double casting effectively, with young and grown up Simba (Niles Fitch and Jelani Remy) and Nala (Kailah MacFadden and Syndee Winters).  I was especially taken by Dionne Randolph‘s Mufasa; his “They Live In You” is a standout.  I wish I had space here to wax enthusiastic about everyone.

As you may know, The Lion King started its life here in Minneapolis, 15 years ago, in a pre-Broadway tryout.  It has become, like all great shows, an institution.  Now it’s back, fully mature and imminently seeable.

The Lion King is not a cheap ticket.  How could it be, with so much first rate design, such great songwriting and so many lovely performances?  But it’s worth it.  If your play-going budget has room for a splurge, here’s the show.

Highly recommended.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

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