By Bill Beard
Walt Disney’s animated films have been thrilling children and adults alike for decades; and even though his earlier attempts at transforming those cartoon movies into live stage musicals were not entirely successful, The Lion King hit paydirt in 1997 with its sweep of Broadway’s Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Director (Julie Taymor), Best Choreography and Best Designs for Scenery, Costumes and Lighting.
It is still running in New York, and in several other cities around the world, and has done several national tours, the latest one of which is currently thrilling Chicago audiences at the Cadillac Palace downtown.
I will admit that I had never seen the show before (forgive me for also admitting that I had never even seen the movie!). But I decided it was high time; and indeed, I found out what a magnificent experience I have been missing all these years.
To “set the scene,” The Lion King is based on the 1994 Disney animated film of the same name, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. The musical debuted in July 1997 in Minneapolis, before a November opening on Broadway, and is now the eighth longest-running show in history.
The creative genious of Director Julie Taymor has been praised to the heavens for her special vision of humans enacting animals; she deserves every acclamation. But that vision was only realized through the ingenious artistry of her co-designer, mask and puppet-maker Michael Curry. Their use of a
combination of animal mask and human face, working together, becomes not confusing or even complicated, but rather doubly expressive, dual dimensional. In addition, the extraordinary puppet animals, from the tiny critters up to the more than life-sized elephant, which comes lumbering down the aisle right beside your seat, are almost frighteningly realistic; and, might I add, beautiful.
I spent 16 days in Africa some years ago, did several days of safari drives. I actually sat in an open Range Rover, in the dusk of night, and found myself staring straight into the huge face of a bull elephant. Even my driver panicked; and only by flashing his strong, hand-held spotlight straight into the animal’s eyes was he able to convince the persistent pachyderm to move off into the bush. That one terrified me; Curry’s life-like puppet entranced me, absolutely charmed me. As did the whole world of The Lion King.
Of course, the actor within the costume is what really determines the success. In this case, several excel. The Lion family is great. Dionne Randolph as Mufasa sets the level and rules well over his whole pride, while giving way to the young Lion King-to-be, Simba, played with magnificent mischief, spunk and sparkle by the spontaneously energetic Jerome Stephens Jr. Young Simba’s spirit is equaled by the full-of-life Monique Lee as the bouncy, tomboyish Young Nala. Later, as the grown-up Simba and Nala, Adam Jacobs and Syndee Winters are equally as charming, creating strong and multi-dimensional characterizations.
As the iniquitous, throne-usurping brother Scar, J. Anthony Crane is marvelously convincing. His is the strongest, most convincing “creature” in the pride of lions. In addition to earning one of the most effective costumes on stage, Crane somehow makes a British accent add venom to his villainous, fratricidal character. The audience cheers his death.
Others deserving praise include Nick Cordileone as Timon, the weasely meerkat, and Ben Lipitz as Pumbaa, the frequently flatulent warthog; also Tony Freeman as Mufasa’s morning report adviser, Zazu, the sarcastic hornbill.
But it is the magnificent Brenda Mhlongo as Rafiki, the baboon, who controls the show for me. Recruited from KwaMashu, South Africa, she has performed the role around the world; and it is patently clear as to why. Her voice is astounding; her character spellbinding. Her performance alone is worth the trip and the admission. She commands the stage and the story, along with a top-notch ensemble of native dancers, thrilling on stage drums and percussion and a wonderful orchestra in the pit.
The visual effects are brilliant, from the utterly gorgeous opening sequence with a stage filled with every animal imaginable silhouetted against an orange sunset, on through the show to the frighteningly realistic wildebeest stampede. And, of course, the amazing manipulation of the fabulous life-sized puppets is without equal.
The Lion King continues through Nov. 27 at the Cadillac Palace. It would be a perfect Thanksgiving vacation adventure for the whole family. For information: 800-775-2000 or ticketmaster.com.
From the Nov. 17-23, 2010 issue