The Lion King on Broadway Review

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Lion King ticketsYet the first word that springs, leaps - nay, pounces - to mind in considering this right royal show, which last night roared triumphantly into the gorgeously restored   theatre, is, simply: extraordinary. And extraordinary on many, many levels.

It is extraordinary to look at and to experience. As a piece of sheer theatrical spectacle, or even as a parade of manifold visual delights, it makes a unique stylistic statement.

What is equally extraordinary is the manner in which a two-dimensional animated cartoon dealing cartoonishly with anthropomorphic animals - with all that special set of qualities and problems - has been translated into a three-dimensional world of animalized humans - and without missing a heartbeat.

Finally, what is most extraordinary is what a wonderful, dazzling musical has been created - a work that stands up to the original not as a copy but as a brilliant development.

Our previous taste of Disneyesque Broadway was, of course, "Beauty and the Beast," which, while adequate enough as spectacle and possessing certain virtues, was obviously aiming to reproduce the original cartoon image on stage - as if it were, if you'll pardon the expression, an ice show without the ice.

But Julie Taymor, the fantastic theatrical mastermind behind "The Lion King," has attempted no such thing. The story, the characters, the music all remain faithfully in place; it is not at all different in that way. But the style has been transformed and made totally individual.

We have seen Taymor's wizardry before in shows such as "Juan Darien, a Carnival Mass" and "The Green Bird," with that idiosyncratic mixture of fact and fantasy, masks and puppets, sound, fury and passion - the whole grab bag of theater tricks from false perspectives to miniaturized landscapes. But we have never seen it so effective.

If ever a show and a director were meant for one another, it is Julie Taymor and "The Lion King," and the Disney producing team - much maligned as new kids on our Broadway block - deserves all the kudos in the world for bringing them together.

Of course, she had a very solid property to work on. "The Lion King" is one of the two or three best of Disney's full-length animated features, with probably only "Pinocchio" and "Bambi" in its league.

And she is enormously assisted, throughout, by Garth Fagan's pulsing choreography, which merges seamlessly with the overall staging but lends its special vibrancy to the entire texture of the show.

The music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice are not by any reckoning vintage Broadway. There are, of course, also richly authentic African chants, mostly by Lebo M, and there are new numbers for the stage show.

In fact, of the 13 numbers listed, only eight (three are new) are by the John/Rice team, and everything has naturally been subjected to the skillful orchestrators, Robert Elhai, David Metzger and Bruce Fowler, while the whole musical kit and orchestral caboodle has been produced for the stage by Mark Mancina.

Yet, for a musical, this music takes a back seat - quite surprisingly far back. Although, as Elton John has already garnered 10 million sales in recording a couple of the songs, I suppose this opinion is not one shared by all.

The book, by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, does a wonderful job in stressing jungle ecology over the awkward fact that the kings of that jungle are scarcely vegetarians. This is not "nature red in tooth and claw," but it is extremely witty, and manages to make the all-too-human feelings of its animals totally unmawkish.

But this, I suspect, despite its considerable byway wonders, is a show you're going to love more for its spectacle and performances than for anything else.

The comedians are particular joys. Geoff Hoyle (Zazu), Max Casella (Timon), Tom Alan Robbins (Pumbaa) and Tsidii Le Loka (Rafiki) do the animal kingdom proud, and each of them (but particularly Hoyle and Casella) is incredible in using a puppet costume that has the actor physically standing outside the creature he is portraying.

The whole cast - including John Vickery as the mean Scar (yes, you do miss the inimitable movie voice of Jeremy Irons); Samuel E. Wright as a commanding Mufasa; Jason Raize as his son, Simba; and a charming child, Scott Irby-Ranniar, as the young Simba - is nothing less than terrific, from hilarious hyenas onward.

But the final praise must go to Taymor and her whole production team, including Richard Hudson for his spectacularly simple and simply spectacular scenic designs; Taymor for her costumes and her puppets, devised in collaboration with Michael Curry; and Donald Holder for the resourceful lighting.

Watch for one highlight - you won't miss it - when Simba sees the image of his father in the reflecting pool. Just watch it and thrill and wonder. For me, it was like the stab of pleasure-pain I felt when I first went to the theater as a child, saw the lights and, somehow tear-stained, knew I was hooked for life.

For, in the last count, what you will remember, cherish and (if it's not still running) tell your grandchildren about this "Lion King" is the total impression of the show: our renewed joy of amazement in the theater of miracles.

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