The Lion King
Stephen Sondheim has said a musical can ride on the strength of its opening number. Think of “Cabaret” or “The Producers,” or Sondheim’s own “Forum” and “Company” and you get the point. Currently there isn’t a stronger opening than that in “The Lion King,” the Elton John/Tim Rice musical that has finally arrived at a Boston theatre some seven years after its Broadway premiere.
“Circle of Life,” the song itself, is no great shakes – an anthem about the cyclic nature of life – that represents this team at their most generic. What pushes the number into the stratosphere is the brilliance of director Julie Taymor’s concept and designs that literally bring the story’s jungle beasts, from lions to elephants and rhinos, within touching distance of the audience. As they pour down the aisle and fill the stage, it’s difficult not to succumb to its spectacular theatricality. The number brilliantly sets the tone for the spectacle that follows, one that takes the 1994 Disney cartoon and transforms it into an unparalleled musical theater event.
Of the current crop of Broadway musicals it is also the best choice to open the refurbished Opera House, a spectacular space that transforms the former vaudeville and movie theater into a contemporary palace for musicals such as this one. In a funny way the success of the restoration parallels what is outstanding about the show itself: a vision realized with striking imagination, planning, and a deep pockets that allowed it to come to fruition with seamless sophistication. There’s so much to see in its vast, gilded auditorium that the only way to divert the audience’s attention from it was to dim the lights and let the show begin.
And what a show it is; virtually every moment is punctuated with Taymor’s enticing mix of cultures, from African music to Asian-styled puppetry to old-fashioned Broadway-styled musical-comedy. Simply put “The Lion King” is a gorgeous hybrid held together by the genius of this visionary talent, who is not only a brilliant designer but a damn good musical theater director, pacing the narrative with drive and invention. There is never a dull moment in the dazzling visuals she’s conceived for the story, from beautifully-realized masks (co-designed, along with the puppets, by Michael Curry) that fit above the faces of the actors, to the playful sets (by Richard Hudson) that offer vibrantly colorful visions of its jungle locales.
Numerous moments stand out: a stampede that begins in the rear of the stage on rolling panels, then moves forward through the use of various sized puppets to suggest its speed and danger; a treacherous river rescue that unfolds with cinematic speed; and a vision of a vanquished Lion King set against a starry sky that’s achieved with the simplest of theatrical means. While it is apparent that money is thrown at the stage, the beauty of “The Lion King” is how Taymor and her talented creative team use it wisely, creating a Broadway musical that on a visual level could hold its place on the great opera stages of the world.
But what of the musical itself? Without Taymor, “The Lion King” is pretty much nothing – a standardized adaptation of the Disney cartoon that would more likely bore than dazzle. The book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi (expanded from their screenplay) maintains the elements of the coming-of-age story of a young lion with the traditional comic elements so intrinsic to Disney. To this add Elton John’s music and Tim Rice’s lyrics that never rise above the ordinary and, in the second act, become little more than a progression of undistinguished pop anthems enlivened only by inventive staging. Taymor wisely adds a healthy dose of African-styled music (by Taymor, Lebo M, Mark Mancina, and Hans Zimmer) that adds to the show’s authenticity, but also underscores just who its true auteur is.
When the antelopes gallop across the stage driven by a bicycle-like machine, or when puppet lions play amongst the grass, represented by headdresses worn by dancing chorus members, the show brilliantly brings-to-life the world of the cartoon. Garth Fagan’s choreography is nicely textured throughout and, during those moments it in the foreground, underscores how traditional this new-fangled musical is.
What’s missing, though, is an emotional thread. The story of Simba, the young cub who is cast out thinking he’s responsible for his father’s death, is more emblematic than involving. The show has elegance, humor, and shimmering beauty, and never lets up with its amazing effects; but lacks heart. You get goose bumps, but not a lump in the throat.
Not that it matters all that much. “The Lion King” is so unique as to defy category, and is performed with such skill by this touring company as to obscure its artistic deficiencies. Dan Donohue is wonderfully evil as Scar, the duplicitous lion whose jealousy drives him to murder his brother, Mufasa, played with a nice blend of authority and sensitivity by Thomas Corey Robinson. The Disney-styled comedy is provided by a farting warthog called Pumbaa and a meerkat called Timon, wonderfully played by Ben Lipitz and John Plumpis respectively; and by Mark Cameron Pow as a fidgety hornbill. As Rafiki the wise monkey, Futhi Mhlongo has a soaring voice perfect for the opening ensemble and second-act reprise of “He Lives in You.” Brandon Kane makes an exuberant, boyish Simba, and is nicely complemented by Alan Mingo, Jr. as his older counterpart. Lisa Nicole Wilkerson has presence as Nala, the lioness who helps guide Simba back to the fold. There’s also excellent work from a large company who play the variety of jungle beasts that Taymor so cleverly suggests through imaginative stagecraft. This touring version has reduced some of the scenic elements, notably the Pride Rock which doesn’t rise from the floor as it does in New York; but these changes hardly deter from the overwhelming visual effect. “The Lion King” is one of those entertainment phenomena that live up to its reputation. It’s difficult not to be dazzled, if only we were moved as well.
Through December 26 at the Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston. Schedule is: Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are priced from $22.50 - $87.50, and are available at the box office or by calling 617-931-2787. For more information, visit http://www.broadwayinboston.com