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Simon Saltzman: `The Lion King’
This review by Simon Saltzman was published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 11, 1998. All rights reserved.
Although the play, in this case, is most definitely
not the thing, "The Lion King" is a must-see event —
two must-see events. The first event, the one that immediately knocks
your socks off, is the absolutely glorious restoration of the historic
(1903) New Amsterdam Theater ("the jewel of 42nd Street").
This is the theater that Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. made
famous with his "Follies" extravaganzas from 1913 to 1927.
Starting off with a stupendous production (something Ziegfeld himself
could not have imagined) of "The Lion King," the Walt Disney
Company and its theatrical productions department plan to make the
fabulous theater famous once again with their own budget-be-damned
Plan to arrive early enough to tour the entire theater. Go up one
grand staircase and down another. Be sure to check out the lavishly
appointed lower lounges where food and drink are available. Wherever
you look there is the fastidious representation of an era when
craftsmen, and architects intended for their mythical subjects, as
well as their own marvelous visions, to transport the public to a
fantastical world of opulence and splendor. Be sure to examine the
full 180-degree loop. Note the theater’s delicate floral pattern
the splashier flora and fauna given full color bas relief on the
and walls. It may be hard not to touch the adorned columns, but you
will settle for looking up at awesome chandeliers and the vibrantly
painted glass domes. For this alone, you may feel you have already
received full value of the price of your ticket.
If you’re inclined toward purchases (of hats, sweats and tee-shirts,
mugs and mice, CDs and PJ’s), Disney has included an adjunct of its
42nd Street merchandise store inside the theater, screaming of
commercialism. But isn’t that the Disney way? Once inside the
you may be a little dismayed to see how much of the gorgeous decor
on the balcony overhang is obscured by the necessary, but nevertheless
unsightly, exposed lighting boards. Tall people will notice the lack
of leg room. Although the main floor is nicely raked, remember the
New Amsterdam is still an old theater revamped and where sight lines
may vary. If you bring a child to the theater — and absolutely
do bring a child to this fabulous debut production — be sure to
bring a cushion along.
The main event, of course, is the show itself. Without exaggeration,
"The Lion King" is unlike anything we have seen before. And
it is breathtaking.
Just the beating of the authentic tribal drums in the
opening moments had my pulse racing. For maximum effect, the drums
have been strategically placed in boxes on both sides of the
If you are lucky, you may feel, as I did, the brush of plumage passing
by and over your head. Exotic high and low flying birds are kept aloft
with thin, flexible poles that reach right up to the balcony. This
heralds the opening scene, a procession down the aisles of Africa’s
most representative inhabitants, including an awesome life-sized
and an incredibly long-necked giraffe. Give an artist as gifted as
Julie Taymor $14 million to play with, and there’s no telling what
magic she can conjure up.
But just as you may be in complete awe of the wittily and wondrously
conceived creatures of the earth and air as they make their way to
Pride Rock, the first real tingles comes from the aural thrill of
the sound of a chanting chorus. Their voices envelop every corner
of the auditorium. You will eventually hear the possibly familiar
and mostly forgettable five songs from the "Lion King" film,
written by Elton John and Tim Rice. Yet know that they definitely
take a back seat to a considerably expanded musical context with
new songs by South African composer Lebo M, and those by Mark Mancina,
Jay Rifkin, and Hans Zimmer. Through them, the pulsating rhythms and
poetry of Africa with a specific Zulu character are evoked throughout
In the same character, even choreographer Garth Fagan does some of
the most inventive work of his career by bringing life to an exotic
terrain — the grasslands actually dance — a life that could
never be so captured in words and music alone.
This stunning artistically reconceived and musically reconsidered
variation on Disney’s 1994 cartoon feature is, if nothing else, a
triumph of concept over content. For this we have to thank Taymor,
whose unique artistic vision as the show’s director and designer is
what makes "The Lion King" the uncommon treat it is.
in true Renaissance fashion, Taymor has done more than take control
of this mammoth show. She has directed the enterprise with the savvy
and know-how usually identified with more seasoned directors of big
shows, like Hal Prince. Taymor has managed to use the simple story
as the ultimate showcase for her most astonishing talents as a
and mask and puppet designer (here in collaboration with Michael
Also credit the gifted Taymor with the lyrics to one of the new songs.
In the past, Taymor’s work ("Juan Darien," "Transposed
Heads") was noteworthy for being conspicuously dark and
With "The Lion King," she tempers her flair for the foreboding
and nightmarish. Yet even with "The Lion King," with all its
characters given a fresher look (a highlight is Tsidii Le Loka, a
South African who plays the baboon-shaman and also wrote the tribal
chants), there is evidence of the commendable unsentimental edge to
Unlike millions of the film’s fans, I took exception, if not umbrage,
with the way the cartoon dealt with the hyenas as fascistic inner-city
goose-stepping neighborhood-ruining scavengers. There, I’ve said it!
There was also the question of the cartoon’s depiction of Pride Rock
as a classist, elitist, hardly democratic, social structure. And then
there’s the ascension of Simba to absolute power, not through deed,
ability, or wisdom — learned or innate — but through a right
of royal lineage and his birthright as a member of a superior order.
Certainly, there was the inference of a confluence of Scar’s devious
character and his inferred homosexuality.
The great news is that all this perverse subtext is gone and virtually
forgotten in Taymor’s stagecraft-exalted vision. Well, not entirely.
Scar, as humorously played by John Vickory, is still loathsome, but
now seen with keener sense of his own unctuous theatricality. What,
you may ask, is so great about losing the cartoon’s romanticized
its rampant sentimentality, let alone its flagrant political
The answer is simple. Taymor has chucked the notion of putting a
on stage (as in "Beauty and the Beast") and put the story
on a more imaginative and esoteric track in order to create a world
we have never seen before.
If the tragedy of Mufasa’s death during a stampede of wildebeests
does not summon up the tears (it probably will), be assured that the
staging of the scene will take your breath away. Don’t expect to be
touched at all, except by whatever may pass you by. This is not to
say that grown Simba (Jason Raize) and Nala (Heather Headley) don’t
make a warming presence with their good looks and voices.
The principal pleasure of "The Lion King" is the dual
of seeing the performers’ expressive faces and limber bodies reveal
delightfully human traits, even as they manipulate, wear, and control
the extravagant, occasionally cumbersome, masks and costumes that
often appear to have personalities and idiosyncrasies of their own.
One of the nicest touches is when Samuel Wright, as Mufasa, removes
the great Lion mask for a heart-to-heart talk with his son, the young
Simba (Scott Irby-Ranniar).
Later, you won’t know what to watch or who is funnier when
court-jester Geoff Hoyle manipulates with sticks the jabbering
Zuzu. The show’s clowns like Pumbaa (Tom Alan Robbins) and Timon (Max
Casella) fare best, and are best at suggesting the perennial need
for humor to survive a cruel world. The spacious settings by designer
Richard Hudson and the splashy lighting by Donald Holder are no less
a part of this stunning African fable than are all Taymor’s creatures
great and small. HHHH
212-307-4747. $20 to $80. These are hard-to-get tickets — the
theater’s latest block released were for spring, 1999.
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