Monday, May 02, 2005

The Lion King

There’s no doubt about it – The Lion King is one impressive spectacle. The opening number alone is worth the price of admission.

The Sacramento Community Theater underwent massive revamping for this touring production of the Tony-award winning version of Walt Disney’s popular cartoon. Two new aisles have been created by removing 4 seats in each row, from the stage to the back of the house, giving room for characters to enter from the back of the theater. Two of the performers also begin the show in the balcony, thus putting the entire audience squarely in the middle of the action.

As the opening number, “Circle of Life,” sung by the wise old baboon Rafiki (Gugwani Dlamini) unfolds, the stage gradually fills with wildlife. Antelope jump, birds fly, giraffes stroll magnetically, cheetahs walk cautiously, zebras prance, an elephant lumbers onto the stage, followed by her baby and, as the gigantic sun rises the audience is transported to some African savannah and the story begins.

The story of The Lion King, by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi can really be described as “Hamlet on the Savannah”: the young prince whose father is murdered by his brother, the son’s angst and guilt, the father becoming a larger in life figure after death, his ghostly counsel giving the son courage to return to avenge his father. The comic relief characters of Timon and Pumbaa.

But the Shakespeare analogy fades into the background when confronted by such a feast for the senses. The Lion King relies more on costume and spectacular lighting design (by Richard Holder) than actual set pieces, and so the show is equally as impressive in a touring company as it was when I saw it in London.

Director Julie Taymor (the first woman in Broadway history to win the Tony award for Best Director of a Musical) also designed the costumes, which are an integral part of this show’s appeal. Faced with the task of bringing a cast of animals to life, she chose to make the human actors actually part of the animals themselves, without losing their “humanness.” And so it is that animal and human blend together so seamlessly that one is able to believe in the “animalness” of the characters.

This production features an outstanding cast. Dlamini is fresh from the London production and gives a broad performance that fills the hall. Rufus Bonds, Jr. comes from the Los Angeles production, where he also played Mufasa. He has perfected the moves of a big cat and his love for his young son is a touching thing to see.

Khaleel Mandel Carter was outstanding as young Simba, with high energy, yet convincing in this tender moments with Mufasa.

Larry Yando as Scar, the lion you love to hate, was appropriately haughty and dislikeable, as were hyenas Shaullanda LaCombe, Melvin Abston and Robbie Swift.

Derek Hasenstab added comic moments, as Zazu, the king’s right hand hornbill. He had some of the funniest lines in the show.

Phil Fiorini as Pumbaa and warthog and Damien Baldet as Timba, the Meerkat were very funny and were especially valuable in giving some substance to Act 2.

I suppose it’s sacrilegious to criticize this popular show. The music by Elton John and Tim Rice have become familiar to anyone with a child of a certain age. The costumes are some of the most ingenious designed for a musical production. And the production values overall can’t be faulted.

However, the meat of this show is all in Act 1. It has the best songs and most of the story has been told by the intermission. While Act 2 is necessary to bring things full circle, it has the feel of something that has been padded to the n’th degree. It has more of the wonderful choreography of Garth Fagan, and more of those antelope prancing across the stage, but the act seems lackluster in comparison to Act 1. It also has one of the most bizarre scenes--an aerial ballet for three couples during “Can you feel the love tonight,” which, while interesting and impressive to watch, seemed out of place--and the costumes didn’t really seem to blend with the rest of the scene. I found myself spending more time trying to figure out what in the world they were supposed to be than in actually enjoying the segment.

Even the performance of Wallace Smith as the adult Simba, while definitely above average, did not seem on a par with his younger self in Act 1.

None of this should detract from the overall impact of The Lion King, however. It’s worth every penny, though tickets are scarce at this late date. I am informed that there are still a few seats left and there is a waiting list for turn-back tickets, so it may be possible to catch it before it leaves. The show runs for the next six weeks, through June 5.

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