Corrections or additions?

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 —

actually

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

stage shows.

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

artisans,

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

carpeting,

the splashier flora and fauna given full color bas relief on the

archways

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

bold-faced

commercialism. But isn’t that the Disney way? Once inside the

auditorium,

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

auditorium.

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

elephant,

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

excellent

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

the show.

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.

Functioning

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

costumer

and mask and puppet designer (here in collaboration with Michael

Curry).

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

disturbing.

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

Taymor’s esthetic.

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

narrative,

its rampant sentimentality, let alone its flagrant political

incorrectness?

The answer is simple. Taymor has chucked the notion of putting a

cartoon

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

experience

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

long-tailed,

court-jester Geoff Hoyle manipulates with sticks the jabbering

hornbill

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

The Lion King, New Amsterdam Theater, 214 West 42nd

Street,

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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