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"If this is the dreaded Disneyfication, well, come on down."
--Newsday review of The Lion King


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<< USA Today review of The Lion King

Newsday (Melville, NY)
'Lion King' Leads a Magical,
Rich Jungle Parade

by Linda Winer, Staff Writer
November 14, 1997

When Disney made its first assault on Broadway with "Beauty and the Beast," we were dispirited by the laziness of sprawling corporate-culture ambition. Instead of some state-of-the-art Hollywood wizardry or even ordinary modern Broadway know-how, the best we got from the legendary entertainment giant was a tracing-paper blow-up of the cartoon hit - just creaky old children's theater at Broadway prices.

That show is in its fourth year now, with cash-happy clones around the planet, and Disney would seem to have no possible reason to change the formula. With the world flattening into one big sanitized theme park, the theater district must be just a few real-estate deals from being one more pre-fab ride.

But time out. Hold on to your Mickey souvenirs. Disney opened "The Lion King" at its restored New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street and both - the show and the playhouse - are enchanting.

If this is the dreaded Disneyfication, well, come on down. Disney has taken a huge risk and dug far into the theater's parallel universe to hire the unlikely Julie Taymor, visionary director-designer of rarified folkloric extravaganzas, for her first Broadway venture. The unprecedented production, rumored to cost around $15 million, is worth every penny of trust.

The opening scene unfolds with moment after giddy moment of astonishment. A gigantic golden contraption of a giraffe - we know there are human legs up in there somewhere - teeters exquisitely onto the stage. South African choral harmonies, with their calming and yet exuberant rhythms of attack and release, seem to come from everywhere in the darkness. Then, as a huge rice-paper sun unfurls elegantly up before us, a parade of part-people, part-jungle creatures - including grand mountainous elephants with ears of flapping African batik - comes lumbering down the aisles of the meticulously restored 1903 rococo palace.

Little in the 2-hour, 40-minute musical is quite as breathtaking as those opening minutes that introduce the "Circle of Life," but we are not greedy. Unlike most theater for children - and for everyone else - this "Lion King" constantly finds ways to keep from spoon-feeding audiences with the obvious and literal. Yet Taymor, whose visually brilliant work has sometimes had the emotional emptiness of an artsy puppet show, uses all her nonstop gorgeous, stylized, African, Indonesian and Asian images this time to tell a story as rich and immediate as it is adorable.

Don't worry. All the animals from the 75-minute animated film are present and identifiable - though most of the cute little cartoon friends have been wildly re-imagined in intentionally clashing styles. And the big vibrant cast won't let you miss the movie's voices of Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg or Nathan Lane for long. There are, of course, the familiar pop songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, which all sound pretty treacly against the more authentic numbers inspired by the movie's spin-off album, "Rhythm of the Pride Lands." There is also lots more African music by the invaluable Lebo M, who also wrote the Zulu chants and performs and leads the all-important, enveloping sounds of the chorus.

The temptation is to keep describing these irresistible puppets and masks (by Taymor and Michael Curry), almost a sensory overload that includes at least three entirely different kinds of giraffes plus antelopes that leap - three at a time - from ingenious attachments on a single person's body. And what about the lush varieties of ambulatory savanna plant-life, including plots of tall grass on top of people's heads, or the way set designer Richard Hudson makes the magisterial face of Mufasa, the young lion's dead father, come together piecemeal from a vast speckled sky and then disappear again? Magic.

But Taymor is not about to let the scenery overwhelm the story - at least not when Disney can help it. As Simba, the young lion as curious cub, the gifted Scott Irby-Ranniar, 13, has all the alert, playful charm of a little prince and a great street kid. Simba and the girl lion Nala (the delightfully self-possessed Kajuana Shuford) are the only creatures who don't wear animal masks above their heads. Their more conventional older selves (played by the fine Jason Raize and Heather Headley) do wear them. Taymor seems to be saying that, like the rest of us, they acquire their masks with the years.

Taymor's esthetic, based on centuries of non-European tradition, wants to show - not to hide - the human beings in the illusion. Simba's father, King Mufasa (played with fierce goodness by Samuel E. Wright), has the carved lion's head above the actor's. So do the choruses of sublimely serene lionesses, lead by Simba's mother (Gina Breedlove), who weep yards of ribbons at the death of their king.

John Vickery's unctuous Scar, Mufasa's Richard III of an older brother, is deliciously wicked - his twisted soul made visible by Taymor in his bony back. His disciples, the hyenas, lurk and cackle through rodent faces that jut from their chests. The comic characters are pure Disney (though each in a completely different puppet style), including Max Casella's Timon the Meerkat with the New Joisey accent; Tom Alan Robbins' Pumbaa, the sweet gaseous Warthog, and Geoff Hoyle's British-bowler clown, Zazu, the king's servant bird. Holding things mystically together is Rafiki, a male monkey in the movie and here a female non-puppet shaman (the ebullient South African singer Tsidii Le Loka).

Garth Fagan's choreography is surprisingly pat, with a kitschy pas de deux for aerialists during "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" that makes us prefer puppets to people. We can live without the smarty asides (including the jokey reference to "Beauty and the Beast"). But the lyricists have some fun with the grownups by rhyming "pride" with "fratricide," "sordid" with "rewarded." Difficult questions about the cruel food chain and the life cycle are confronted as straightforwardly as possible, though the child in us is still not comforted. If this is Disney's idea of a theme park, however, we are delighted to report that the theme is quality.

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