Just when theatergoers had gotten used to the idea of plays being adapted from films, we were faced with the far more unnerving prospect of plays being adapted from cartoons — first with Beauty and the Beast, then with The Lion King, both from Walt Disney. Whatever may be said about Beauty, it can be stated unequivocably that The Lion King, which has finally reached the gorgeously restored Pantages Theater, is a heartfelt contribution to the musical stage, thanks to director-designer Julie Taymor’s intense commitment to a vision that sees theater as being about magic — and the possibility of more magic. A visual splendor continually invigorates The Lion King, a show whose book, by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, is a rather formulaic redemption lesson and whose music too often falls into the forgettable soft-rock category.
The fable begins with the birth of a lion cub on the African veldt; perched atop Pride Rock, the reigning lion king, Mufasa (Rufus Bonds Jr.), looks forward to many more years before the sun will set on his realm and rise on his son Simba‘s. But guess who’s not coming to dinner? Mufasa‘s swishy, usurperous brother, Scar (John Vickery), whose absence at the celebration has been noted but not taken seriously enough by Mufasa. Before long, however, the lion king lies dead and young Simba (Adrian Diamond, alternating with KaRonn A. Henderson), leaves the savanna for a jungle exile, where he meets up with a flatulent wart hog, Pumbaa (Bob Bouchard), and a droopy-eared meerkat, Timon (Danny Rutigliano) — a pair of vaudevillian comedians who are at once laid-back and cowardly.
They introduce the young lion to both a veganbug diet and the go-with-the-flow philosophy expressed in the song ”Hakuna Matata.“ In the meantime Scar, lounging about like a decadent old Roman emperor, and his praetorian guard of hyenas have run the Pridelands into ruin. Talk about day of the jackal — Mufasa’s old kingdom is now a bone-strewn landscape thanks to Scar‘s policy of overhunting. Persuaded by a vision of Mufasa to confront his destiny as the rightful heir to Pride Rock, the now-mature Simba (Clifton Oliver) returns to his desolate home to battle Scar for the top of the animal hierarchy.
The Lion King unfolds and concludes between sunrises, but this tidy symbolism shouldn’t alarm, as we quickly accept and even embrace the show‘s narrative familiarity. In fact, Simba’s tale of regicide, exile and rebirth is a veritable safari through world mythologies, but the ricochet of Greek, Biblical, Shakespearean and other plots is synthesized with such seamless harmony that Lion King never becomes the confusing, clattering jumble it could have. There may never be any doubt as to what is going to happen, but the show is, after all, for children, who are viewing this archetypal story of murder and treason without having read a page of Joseph Campbell.
Harmony and balance, in fact, could be said to lie at the story‘s core. We — and presumably the kids sitting next to us — are told from the start that the natural world is not always a happy or pretty place. Yet after this bit of nature-show revisionism the evening settles into the comfortably familiar world of humanized animals and Judeo-Christian sensibilities about justice and retribution. Well, why not? Who wants to sit through two and a half hours of triumphant hyenas and vegetarian lions?
Taymor has shrewdly concocted a spectacle that combines the Darwinist realities of nature with audience wish-fulfillment through the visual wonders she has orchestrated. She and Michael Curry have designed a warehouse of masks, costumes and puppets, all perfectly complemented by Richard Hudson’s mobile scenery and Steve C. Kennedy‘s crystalline sound. Although Taymor’s characters wear costumes and masks, her actors‘ humanity still emerges because of the formfitting or transparent nature of these zoo suits and because the masks are worn as headgear, allowing us to see their wearers’ faces beneath. Cats this ain‘t, but a smart presentation of human frailty, cunning and heroism shining through fur and hide.
The costuming also permits the skills of the ensemble to literally show through as we watch those actors whose characters are actually puppets (such as William Akey’s Brit-butler-sounding toucan, Zazu) manipulating these puppets at the same moment they speak their characters‘ lines and imbuing them with their own facial expressions. The puppetry alone demands our attendance: We see herds of tiny gazelles whose arcing grace is rendered by sets of turning wheels pushed around the stage, colossal wildebeest heads and a life-size prowling cheetah. And this isn’t to mention the shadow puppets of the story‘s main characters, or the stilt-walking giraffes and the fluttering birds made to wheel over the audience.
Again, though, Taymor also gets some enchantment from the actual humans onstage: Vickery is deliciously wicked in his poncy shtick, while Bouchard and Rutigliano are unforgettable as a kind of jungle-bound Abbott and Costello.
Was I bothered by the black-ghetto dialect of one of the hyenas? Only when I heard it, which is to say, its use didn’t ruin the rest of the show for me. Is Scar‘s vaguely homosexual villain, who clearly has introduced an ”unnatural“ skew to the veldt, full of coded social messages? Probably (after all, he hangs out at a place called Pride Rock), but one can sit and seethe over almost any work these days — my main question is why Pride Rock has tiger stripes on it.
Even the show’s so-so music didn‘t really disappoint; few of the songs may be full-length numbers, but that only befits Lion King’s child-friendly format. And, actually, make that adult-friendly as well, since few of them, with the exception of the Tokens‘ 1961 doo-wop classic, ”The Lion Sleeps Tonight,“ linger very long in the ear, sounding like the whiner-takes-all anthems so expected of an Elton John–Tim Rice collaboration. Overall, the show’s most powerful sounds are its African chorus and chants, created by Lebo M. These are the rhythms that most suit Taymor‘s visual fantasia, and which, had they been allowed to wash over the entire show, may have transformed it from spectacle into the realm of hypnotic dream play.