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"...Mufasa's son, played with wide-eyed energy by Jason Raize..."
--The Washington Times review of The Lion King


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<< Syracuse Herald American review of The Lion King

The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Beautiful... or Beastly?
"Lion King" is Truly King of the Stage

by Nelson Pressley
November 23, 1997

America's love-hate relationship with Disney goes something like this:

Love the animated features. Take the children five times, buy the videos and action figures. Hate the treatment of history ("Pocahontas") and literature ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame").

Love the chance to see "The Little Mermaid" on the big screen again. Hate the two-week limited engagement, which seems like a cynical attempt to whip up interest just in time for the holiday buying season.

Love the theme parks in California and Florida. Hate the idea of Disneyfied history in a park in Virginia (what on earth would the takes on slavery and the Civil War have been like?).

So it goes on Broadway, where director Julie Taymor's remarkable stage version of Disney's animated hit "The Lion King" opened last week. The Broadway crowd hated the idea of Disney crashing its turf several years ago with a technically impressive but charmless "Beauty and the Beast," which is still running at the Palace Theater.

And the Disneyfication of 42nd Street, part of an effort to spruce up the seedy thoroughfare, is a decidedly mixed bag. The Disney Store there is so big it has entrances on 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, and it even has an entire room dedicated to merchandise celebrating Disney's theatrical ventures. For $100, you get a denim jacket with the "Lion King" logo embroidered on the back; $180 gets you a bomber-style cloth jacket with the logo embossed on the back. Buy buy, baby.

On the other hand, the newly refurbished, Disney-owned New Amsterdam Theatre is an undeniable jewel in Broadway's crown. The lobby is filled with reliefs of scenes from Shakespeare. Four peacocks surround classical figures on the theater's ceiling. Every arch and wall surface seems to be carved. Decorative touches are simply everywhere, even on the textured patterns of the seats.

Apparently, this is how the Amsterdam looked when it was constructed in 1903. It has since gone through the now-familiar cycle of conversion to a movie house, then disuse, until its re-emergence earlier this year. Now, it is hard to imagine a lovelier setting for a show; the whimsical environment is perfect for the fanciful "Lion King."

Trumping all criticism of Disney as a player on Broadway is the puppet-driven "The Lion King" itself. It is a bold work of art, and stylistically the most daring piece of theater to hit mainstream musicals in years. You gotta love it - and judging by the roars at a preview performance for critics and insiders last week, Broadway does.

* * *

The rapturous New York reviews were already out when Julie Taymor described herself as a "theater maker" during a talk about her career Monday night at the Corcoran Gallery. She recounted her years studying theater in Bali and Japan, and showed video clips of some of her generally dark avant-garde work. The audience caught glimpses of the magical, mask-filled "Juan Darien," a gruesome staging of "Titus Andronicus," the peculiar "Fool's Fire" (a film that used puppets and dwarf actors), and som e of the grand and startling images from her staging of the Stravinsky opera, "Oedipus Rex."

Yet Miss Taymor was able to tell the Corcoran audience that the $15 million "Lion King" "is more experimental than anything I've ever done, quite frankly."

Miss Taymor acknowledged that she and Disney - known more for its cuteness than for its daring - are an odd couple. But, she said, "We started on a good fundamental ground, which is that they wanted what I do."

What she does is tell epic, mythical stories and create strong images, often with masks and puppets. She knows how to make theatrical magic, as she proves in the first 10 breathtaking minutes of "The Lion King."

The blue stage changes to red as a large sun rises and two giraffes - actors on stilts and cloaked in Miss Taymor's ingenious costumes - lope onto the stage. That image alone is so beautiful, and so perfectly paced, that the crowd gasps and applauds.

They ain't seen nothin' yet. As the music to "Circle of Life" fills the theater, a parade of African animals saunters down the aisles and onto the stage - elephants, gazelles, lions, a cheetah. The place teems with animal life, and the actors are remarkably in tune with their unusual puppets - even though, or perhaps because, many of the costumes deliberately leave the actors' faces visible. By the end of the number, the audience is completely transported into a sumptuous fantasy world.

The sheer mechanics of the puppetry are part of the show's fascination. The lion actors wear tan tights and have lion masks on top of their heads. You can watch the actors talk and sing, but at strategic moments the lion masks drop in front of the actors' faces, and all you see is lion. It happens early in a brief showdown between Mufasa (the Lion King, played with calm majesty by Samuel E. Wright) and his evil brother Scar (John Vickery, in a slithery George Sanders mode). Scar's singular mask cranes forward on what seems to be a mechanical neck (there is actually a cable that is connected to a trigger hidden in the actors' hands). The effect is very catlike, and quite menacing.

Other animals are as intriguingly composed, with the actors often half in and half out of their puppets (co-created by Michael Curry). The puppets are the starting point of each character, but the performers are free to bring a lot of personality to bear. Max Casella and Tom Alan Robbins provide plenty of comic relief as Timon (the wisecracking meerkat) and Pumbaa (the flatulent warthog), and Tracy Nicole Chapman, Stanley Wayne Mathis and Kevin Cahoon do fascinating work as the hilariously stupi d hyenas that are Scar's henchmen.

The visual wizardry goes way beyond the puppetry. Miss Taymor creates wonderful action scenes using little more than silks and scrolls. In one swift sequence, Timon gets swept away by a flooded river and plunges down a waterfall. In another, Scar instigates a wildebeest stampede that leads to Mufasa's death.

Is the story as good as the storytelling? Not always. For starters, the movie's best-known songs (the ones by Elton John and Tim Rice) don't adapt very well to the stage. "Hakuna Matata" still sounds jolly, but it's a curiously shapeless song that has no snap here. And the ballad "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," in which Simba (Mufasa's son, played with wide-eyed energy by Jason Raize)  and Nala (the elegant Heather Headley) fall in love, is such an inert stage ballad that Miss Taymor and choreographer Garth Fagan resort to aerial ballet.

Scar's songs are particularly dull, especially the peevish, formulaic "The Madness of King Scar" that opens the second act. But it is followed by Nala's haunting "Shadowlands," a song that pulses with African rhythms and a lovely Hans Zimmer-Lebo M. melody.

The tale itself, about how the frightened young Simba comes of age and finally claims his kingdom from Scar, comes together in a startling sequence in the middle of the second act. An African shaman named Rafiki (played with wit and sung with proud force by Tsidii Le Loka) guides Simba to a pond and reminds him that his father was a king. Meanwhile, what appears to be a group of fish floating in the darkness behind Simba - our view of Simba's watery reflection - suddenly takes the shape of Mufasa's face. It's a stunning sight, and Simba's revelation (accompanied by the driving, lordly refrain of "He Lives in You") could hardly be more moving.

"The Lion King" - arguably the most expensive puppet show in history - is a long, imperfect musical. But it is also dazzling, one-of-a-kind entertainment. Usually critics' raves that "There's nothing like it on Broadway" don't mean much, because there is so little on Broadway. But heck, commercial American theater has never seen anything like this. Disney now not only occupies the forefront of movie musicals - where, Fox's latest challenge of "Anastasia" notwithstanding, it essentially has no competitors - it can also claim to rule the cutting edge of musical theater. Who would have guessed?


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