When Julie Taymor agreed, in 1995, to direct a stage version of The Lion King (for which she also designed costumes and, with Michael Curry, masks and puppets), the challenges — despite her having been given ”an enormous amount of free rein,“ she recalls, with both the look and the book — were immense: to stay true to the movie, yet evince her own vision; to collaborate with many, yet not diffuse the concept; to win over her Disney bosses as well as the movie‘s fans. She insists that, though collaborating with literally hundreds of people, there was hardly any conflict among the happiest people on Earth.

In order to create an original theatrical world that would serve the story, Taymor opted for simplicity itself: ”I wanted to expose the strings, to not hide the art,“ she explains regarding her decision to have the actors remain as visible as the characters they bring to life. ”To see the mechanics — that’s exquisite to me. It‘s meaningful, it’s symbolic, it‘s the art of the theater.“

In Taymor’s conception, this duality of characteractor is vital. ”Even though it‘s an animal story,“ she says, ”it’s truly a fable about human beings. It‘s not about realism, it’s about essence.“

For the lions, Taymor and Curry designed masks to sit on top of actors‘ heads; actors’ limbs, on stilts, become giraffe legs, the human and animal a single merged being; an actor recalling a British music-hall comedian manipulates Zazu, the pivotal bird.

Actor Danny Rutigliano, a veteran of the Broadway production, inhabits meerkat Timon via a cartoonish puppet that‘s attached to the front of his costume, its limbs manipulated by his own. The actor recalls an audience member remarking on the creature’s memorable variety of facial expressions — even though Timon‘s face is fixed in one comical grin. Rutigliano chalks the misperception up to the success of Taymor’s concept: ”The audience watches me, they watch the puppet. We‘ve become one.“

Taymor’s Africa is her own invention (she didn‘t visit the continent until after the show opened), a savanna rich with African music yet inspired by cultures worldwide. It’s a credit to Taymor that, aside from the vaudeville duo of Timon and the warthog Pumbaa (both of whom wouldn‘t be out of place bopping along in Disneyland’s Main Street Parade), her claim on the characters feels like a welcome departure from the studio‘s storehouse of cutesy animals. For instance, the evil lion Scar, decked out in African prints, is reminiscent of both samurai and Wild West cowboy. Still, despite the imaginative meshing, there are certain Vegas moments (a costume parade of dancing plants) and a nod to Cirque du Soleil (airborne dancers) that stick out badly.

Though Taymor leads the audience through the Pridelands, as Rutigliano notes, via ”theatrical tricks that are hundreds of years old,“ even the most basic of the effects is dependent on the complexities of 21st-century wizardry. ”What’s interesting about Lion King,“ she says, ”is its [mix of] very high and very low technology.“

In the ”high“ department, five on the stage-management staff, along with 10 crew members, handle 134 puppets, 500 costumes, 70 wigs, and makeup for 48 actors, plus running hundreds of cues every night.

In other words, it takes a village to run this Lion‘s jungle. The production stage manager, Ray Gin, notes that ”The technology evolves according to the artistic vision of the director.“ Where other visionaries a might drop a chandelier over the audience or sink the Titanic, Taymor wows the crowd at one point with a mouse that’s only 9 inches high. Paper and silk on a stick passing as a bird? Why not? Fill the auditorium with them, as Taymor does, and the effect is breathtaking.

In one seemingly simple scene, two actors stretch a long silk ”river“ across the width of the stage. As it wavers, reflecting light, colored fish (shadow puppets lit from behind) appear to swim through it. Meanwhile, the young lion Simba dares Timon to jump across, and jump he does. But Timon falls in and is swept downstream, only to reappear a few moments later much farther away — a fraction of his previous size — dangling perilously from the limb of a tree overhanging a shimmering waterfall that has appeared from nowhere. Two comically snapping alligators wait to devour him in the pool below. Timon struggles, screaming, begging to be rescued. But poor Simba is frozen as he remembers his father, Mufasa, who earlier fell to his death: Mufasa‘s ghostly face appears behind the waterfall, then spins scarily as Timon loses his grip and falls into the pool; our perspective quickly closes in as the river and waterfall disappear. Finally, Timon appears full size, with a fish in his mouth.

What’s the method behind the magic? As the river is unfurled, two crew members in the wings quickly attach seven cutout plexiglass fish and remote-controlled light units to a conveyer track that runs behind the silk; unseen by the audience, a ”crash pad“ is set by a crew member, then pulled off after Timon jumps onto it; offstage, Timon takes a genie-lift — a small elevator installed expressly for this one character and this one scene — to the basement. The audience sees the silk waterfall drop, and the tree move into place with the miniature Timon puppet attached — his limbs being jiggled by strings held by an offstage crew member. The waterfall shimmers via projections, while the alligators are two actors standing below stage level snapping big puppet heads. And so on. This remarkable scene, only a few minutes long, involves 16 crew and cast members, three computers, three elevators, a projector, dozens of lighting instruments, split-second timing, untold hours of rehearsal — and the idea, passed down through a million cold nights, of telling a story with hand shadows projected by fire onto a stone wall.

Such is the simple beauty and technological complexity of Taymor‘s concept, melding modern and primitive in what appears to the audience as direct and true as storybook illustrations. Masks that appear to be carved from heavy wood are light as a cat’s whisker, made of the same carbon fiber that‘s used to make Formula One race cars — just another of the many illusions that tell the story of The Lion King.

For performance information, see Calendar Theater listings.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.