- Top cat: Alton Fitzgerald White is lion patriarch Mufasa.
Anyone who doesn't take a child, grandchild, or inner child to see The Lion King should be arrested for abusing a minor. There are simply too many moments of jaw-dropping spectacle in this touring version of the gargantuan Broadway hit to enumerate. And the flawless blend of pageantry and puppetry, music and mysticism, will stay with you forever. Not bad for the price of a ticket -- even a high-priced one.
Oh, the ticket thing. If The Lion King's seven-week run at the State Theatre is totally sold out by the time you read this, consider other options. Find someone with tickets, say you have a terminal illness, and beg for the passes on the grounds that they'll satisfy your last request. When you survive, just tell them that seeing the show must have saved you in the nick of time, the way lion patriarch Mufasa saves his son Simba from the cackling hyenas at the elephant graveyard. Or just hold a meat cleaver to the ticket-holder's throat and demand the precious strips of cardboard, as Simba does when he confronts his evil uncle Scar with the truth of Mufasa's murder. One way or another, you must see this show.
There are some similarities to the animated Lion King in this version, staged with awe-inspiring vision by director, lyricist, costume designer, and mask and puppet designer Julie Taymor. The story line and acting style are each reflective of that instant Disney cartoon classic, which is no bad thing. But the ways in which this live show diverges from its animated predecessor are the ways of unabashed theatrical genius. And no, that's not too grand a claim. By fashioning a new take on animal puppetry, in which you simultaneously see the actor/puppeteer and the mask-mechanism itself, Taymor conjures an African savannah replete with human-powered giraffes, elephants, leopards, and loads of lions. Colorful birds fill the air above the audience and antelopes bound by, all visibly aided by actors. This fascinating integration of the human and animal forms elegantly captures the essence of our interdependence on this planet and verges on the spiritual.
There are many moments of lyrical beauty, but those are quickly balanced by the loony. The young cub Simba is watched over by Zazu (Jeffrey Binder), the dodo-bird assistant to Mufasa, who delivers a nonstop stream of one-liners and puns. As Simba grows to adulthood in self-imposed exile (mistakenly thinking that he's responsible for his father's death), he teams up with Timon, a wisecracking meerkat (John Plumpis), and Pumbaa, Timon's gastrointestinally challenged warthog friend (Ben Lipitz). Binder and Plumpis each master remarkably different puppetry techniques to provide comic relief from the serious tale of filial devotion and redemption.
Of course, this is at heart a Disney project, so there is a memorable, hissable villain -- in the sinuous presence of Scar. Patrick Page uses his resonant Shakespeare-trained voice to languorously growl his sarcastic asides to hated nephew Simba as well as to bellow commands to his cadre of hyena henchmen. The grown-up Simba and his playmate-turned-lover Nala, acted by Alan Mingo Jr. and Kissy Simmons, beautifully express their feelings in the tender song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?", surrounded by Eden-like human/plants and suspended aerial dancers. In fact, all the music written by Elton John and Tim Rice -- augmented with native African rhythms by Lebo M. and others -- meshes seamlessly with the action onstage to envelope the audience in an aura from which one departs only reluctantly.
No aspect of the production has been given short shrift. Lighting is used to saturate the stage with intense colors, which convey the brutal immediacy of both love and loss that defines life on the veldt. The traditional African costumes -- riotous collections of patterns and hues - embody the energy of the people who live side by side with the animals. Everything from a stampede of wildebeests (wave upon wave of puppet gnus) to the drying up of a precious water hole (a lit circle of cloth that slithers away through a hole in the stage) are imagined indelibly. Not to mention the gigantic glowing paper sun, the swaying grasslands perched on actors' heads, and the ingeniously rigged lion and hyena masks that crane forward in front of the character's human face in moments of aggression or intensity.
While children under the age of seven might need some guidance to keep up with the plot and the often overwhelming activity, everyone else will experience that pleasurably weightless sensation of total awe. Truth be told, there is nothing worse than bad theater and nothing better than great theater. And The Lion King is in a category of excellence all by itself: the stage musical as profound metaphor, joyous entertainment, low comedy, and high art. Long may it reign.