Through Sun 9/1
There is an old adage in the theater that an audience should not leave a musical theater production whistling sets and costumes. In other words, it should be the music and storyline that are most important. Obviously, the person who dreamt up that line hadn’t been exposed to Julie Traymor’s costumes and puppets as well as her directorial and creative approach to transforming The Lion King from an animated film to Broadway musical.
The integration of the technical elements of the touring production, as was true of the Broadway staging, is captivating. The story, visuals and musical components are so beautifully stitched together that one cannot conceive any aspect without the other.
Since its 1994 creation, Walt Disney Studio’s animated feature film, The Lion King, has become a cottage industry. The film, the stage show, which is still running on Broadway and has numerous touring versions, including one revisiting the State Theatre, a film remake that is presently in theaters, and products galore including DVDs, t-shirts, stuffed animals, and carry bags, have been produced and are on sale in the theater lobby.
With book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, the tale of King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi, the rulers of the Pride Area, their son, Simba, and the King’s wicked brother, Scar, the tale has been well told.
The show’s music, which includes “Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” “They Live in You,” ”Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” is memorable. But don’t anticipate hearing “The Morning Report.” The song was eliminated from both the Broadway and touring productions, along with making other musical adjustments, to save about eight production minutes.
The stage show starts as Rafiki (a baboon who serves as a shaman to the royals of Pride Rock) calls for all to know that the circle of life will continue as a new cub, to be named Simba, will be announced at the gathering of the animals. The theater is soon filled with large puppet birds and animals, including an elephant, who march down the aisles and fill the stage.
The tale continues as playful Simba, whose enthusiasm often overcomes his emerging logic, gets into one scrap after another, including going to the elephant burial ground and being involved in a wildebeest stampede in which his father is killed by Scar. Scar convinces Simba that his father’s death was his fault and tells him to run away, which the guilt-ridden boy does. Scar claims the throne and allows hyenas to control the Pride Lands. They willfully destroy the animals needed to keep the survival of the fittest in balance. Hunger and desolation exist.
After running away, Simba collapses from exhaustion. Vultures begin to circle, but are scared away by Timon, a mischievous meerkat, and Pumbaa, a warthog with gastrointestinal problems. Simba grows to adulthood and eventually he realizes that he must return and reveal himself.
As in all good tales of good versus bad, Simba defeats Scar, who has destroyed the tranquility of the jungle. With the battle won, Simba’s friends come forward and acknowledge him as the rightful king. Simba ascends Pride Rock and roars out across the kingdom. The Pride Lands recover and the animals gather in celebration as Rafiki presents Simba and Nala’s newborn cub, continuing the circle of life.
The Lion King opened on Broadway on November 13, 1997. It is still running to sold-out houses. The show has been seen nationally and internationally by over 100 million audience members. It has received over 70 major theater awards internationally, and is the third longest running Broadway musical.
The touring show has most of the elements of the original Big Apple production. Some of the scenic effects have been pared down so the show can be set up on various sized stages. But do not doubt that the show has the same effect as the original. The touring show is spectacular, with outstanding cast. There is not a weak performer on stage.
It should be revealed that this is not a tale for some children, especially young and/or sensitive ones. The staging is filled with scary hyenas, numerous deaths, and there are scary dark scenes. Cinderella this is not. A little boy who was sitting in front of me kept covering his face and whimpering in the scary segments, and didn’t come back for the second act. It is one thing to see the action in a movie, but in real life things get much scarier.
Capsule judgment: If you have not seen the stage version of The Lion King, do it now. Due to the complicated technical aspects, and exceptional puppets and costumes, no community theater is going to be able to duplicate the production qualities. Besides, these are difficult roles to sing, dance and act. It takes professionals to pull it off. But maybe leave the young and more sensitive kids at home.
The Lion King runs through Sun 9/1 at the State Theatre, as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series. To purchase tickets, call 216-241-6000 or go to playhousesquare.org.
[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association and Cleveland Critics Circle]