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"It's a theatrical flourish as intoxicating as any you've ever experienced."
--USA Today review of The Lion King


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<< The New York Times Theater section review of The Lion King

USA Today
'The Lion King': Theater to Roar For
by David Patrick Stearns
November 14, 1997

NEW YORK -- From the very first minutes of The Lion King, you feel yourself on new ground -- no, in a whole new world. Disney's newest stage musical doesn't just leave its blockbuster animated-film roots behind. It's a different kind of Broadway creature (* * * 1/2 out of four)

Animals -- a savannah's worth, played by actors with stilts, masks and tails -- saunter down the aisles of the New Amsterdam Theater, swaying to the sounds of The Circle of Life. It's a theatrical flourish as intoxicating as any you've ever experienced. And then? This classic story about a lion cub who goes into self-imposed exile after the death of his father hardly flags.

Unlike Disney's Beauty and the Beast, this is no ultra-realistic movie onstage. Designer/director Julie Taymor and co-designer Richard Hudson take a more abstract approach: Their creations won't be mistaken for real gazelles or elephants, but they zero in on the souls of the beasts, inviting viewers to mentally fill in the cracks.

Most living things, even grasslands and bushes, are portrayed by actors; the effect is a landscape vibrating with life. With such a participatory dynamic, audiences seem to vibrate with it.

Performers operate puppets with humor and expressivity. Geoff Hoyle is superb as the pesky bird Zazu. But as good as Scott Irby-Ranniar and Jason Raize are as the young and older Simba, the performer who walks off with my heart is Tsidii Le Loka, a South African singer who plays the muttering, wailing, hyperverbal baboon Rafiki.

For all their strengths, though, neither Taymor nor librettists Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi have a smooth sense of narrative. The subplot in which Simba is raised by a warthog and meerkat looks like a different (and tackier) show. And one wants more of Garth Fagan's earthy choreography. The score, written jointly by Elton John, Mark Mancina, Lebo M and others, is a stylistic mishmash that strays too often from its African roots. Still, musical high points are considerable and come off even better on the original cast album.

When The Lion King is good, it's enthralling. It may run as long as its tamer cousin Cats.

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