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"Taymor has assembled an excellent cast, especially Scott Irby-Ranniar as a rambunctious young Simba and Kajuana Shuford as young Nala; and Jason Raize as a vivid grown-up Simba and Heather Headley as a cool and serene Nala.''
--Cleveland Plain Dealer review of The Lion King


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<< New Jersey Star-Ledger review of The Lion King

The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH)
Royal Staging of 'Lion King' Film Breathtakingly Transformed into Theater
by Marianne Evett, Theater Critic
November 14, 1997

As "The Lion King" opens, the shaman baboon Rafiki, alone on a bare stage, begins a Zulu chant, waving and pounding her long staff. The shapes of two or three giraffes move across the back as a giant golden sun rises against an orange sky.

Then, with an ever-quickening pace, the whole auditorium of the New Amsterdam Theatre seems to fill with animals - zebras, giraffes, gazelles, antelopes, lions - and soaring birds. An elephant comes down one aisle as a rhinoceros comes down another. Crowding onstage, they pay homage to the lion king Mufasa, his queen Sarabi and his baby heir, Simba, high above on the jutting prow of Pride Rock.

It is an overwhelming opening, full of surprise and delight, thanks to the incredible ingenuity of director Julie Taymor, who with Michael Curry designed the costumes and puppets that turn people into animals. One actor pushes a kind of gazelle machine, a wheeled contraption on which nine or 10 - or a whole herd - leap. Actors' faces peer out from the base of the giraffes' necks, their hands and feet manipulating the stiltlike legs. Mufasa and the other lions wear life-size masks above their faces. In a wonderful duality of vision, you see both the human and the animal.

Constantly surprising

This stage version of Disney's popular animated film is a triumph for Taymor, who combines Eastern puppet techniques with her own extraordinary skill and whose imagination never flags. All the things from the film that you thought could not be done on a stage - the menacing hordes of hyenas, the wildebeest stampede, Mufasa's fall to his death and his later appearance in the sky to his son - happen.

Waterfalls and grasslands, desert and elephant graveyard - all are there. This is a whole world, teeming with life, constantly surprising you with its breathtaking vision.

Under it, of course, is still the cartoon story, and the pop-rock candy music by Elton John and Tim Rice. "The Lion King" is one of Disney's better movies, however, with its story of a prince overburdened by guilt at his father's death, who then gets revenge and restores the kingdom (a "Hamlet" with a happy ending).

What's more, Taymor has turned the story into an African folk myth in which its patriarchism seems less blatant. At the opening of Act II, the chorus enters in bright-colored robes, singing "One by One," a song by Lebo M. originally written for his CD "Rhythm of the Pride Lands." Four songs from that album, inspired by "The Lion King" and drawing on Lebo M.'s South African tribal background, have been added to the stage score. The close harmonies and African rhythms give a new feel to the score, although Nala's song, "Shadowlands," goes on too long.

Excellent cast

Taymor has assembled an excellent cast, especially Scott Irby-Ranniar as a rambunctious young Simba and Kajuana Shuford as young Nala; and Jason Raize as a vivid grown-up Simba and Heather Headley as a cool and serene Nala. John Vickery makes a suitably hollow and villainous Scar, and Samuel E. Wright a generous Mufasa. Taymor has beefed up Nala's role, making her the object of Scar's lust for an heir of his own.

The comic characters, too, are excellent, especially Max Casella, completely in green, who vanishes behind the Timon puppet and gives it life. Tom Alan Robbins wears the shape of Pumbaa, peering from behind the warthog's huge cartoon snout. But you see them as whole creatures, not men with puppets.

If you liked the film of "The Lion King," you will not be disappointed by the Broadway musical. And if you have not been a Disney fan, you will be knocked out by this transformation of an animated film to a live theater piece.

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