BWW Reviews: THE LION KING Roars Into Austin
When it comes to national tours of successful Broadway musicals, there seems to be an unfortunate trend. The longer the tour runs, the more the cracks begin to show. Sets and costumes get scaled down, the quality of the cast diminishes as does the cast size, and the show itself becomes far less enjoyable. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, I'm guessing you didn't see the road shows of RENT or The Phantom of the Opera about five years into their tours.
The Lion King has miraculously bypassed much of this dismal circle of life, despite the fact that it has now traversed the country for over a decade. Though there have been a few modifications to the tour over the last few years (the set design is slightly simpler and some moments have been cut for time) The Lion King is still majestic, astonishing, thrilling, and thoroughly entertaining.
While the coming of age story of a young lion destined to be king may be incredibly simple (made even simpler by the lackluster book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, one of the show's few weak points), the way the story is told is remarkable. The songs by Elton John, Tim Rice, Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer range from the jazzy earworms and beautiful ballads of the original film to intricate African chants, all of which move the story along. While you may not leave the theater humming any of the tunes written specifically for the stage version, the way the music is incorporated into the visual storytelling is flawless.
Of course, it is the visual storytelling that is the most memorable. Under the elaborate and extraordinary vision of Tony Award winning director Julie Taymor, the show is incredibly colorful and eye-catching. As a side note, I must say that it's a shame her work on Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark is the career-ending stuff that injuries and lawsuits are made out of. I would love to see Julie Taymor return to Broadway with yet another musical hit. She is a true artist and visionary, and her talent must be shared with the world.
But back to The Lion King, the work of Ms. Taymor and her creative team is definitely the largest draw for the show. Their work turns the quaint Disney film into a cultural experience enriched by various art forms ranging from African dance, tribal rhythms, Chinese martial arts, and Indonesian puppetry. The set by Richard Hudson is fantastic, the lighting by Donald Holder is beautiful, and the costumes, masks, and puppets by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry are absolutely breathtaking. Rounding out the creative team is the severely underrated work of Tony winning choreographer Garth Fagan whose choreography is athletic, difficult, and elaborate. The only visual more dazzling than the collective work of the design team is the look of wonder and amazement that you'll see on the faces in the audience, particularly the little ones.
Still, as great as a show can be visually, it needs a strong cast to make it work. Without a talented company of actors, The Lion King can easily become a "highfalutin puppet show" as Gerard Alessandrini called it in his Forbidden Broadway revue. Thankfully, the national tour cast provides the show with emotion, power, and heart. This 50 person cast is the cream of the crop, and the large ensemble clearly has fun with the material. Of the supporting actors and leads, your children will probably respond most positively to the comedic and often slapsticky antics of the wildly talented Mark David Kaplan as Zazu, Rashada Dawan, Keith Bennett, and Robbie Swift as the trio of wicked hyenas, and Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz as the wisecracking Timon and Pumbaa.
Buyi Zama also brings plenty of humor to the somewhat insane shaman, Rafiki, and she has a powerful voice as well, something utilized quite well in the opening number, "Circle of Life" and in act two's "He Lives in You." As Mufasa, Dionne Randolph plays a bit more with the fatherly angle of the character rather than his rivalry with his brother or his duties as ruler of the animal kingdom. The choice serves the character well as it puts more focus on the relationship between father and son and shows us the tender side of the seemingly unflinching Mufasa. Derek Smith gives a fantastic turn as the evil Scar. It's surprising that he didn't get booed at his curtain call, and that is the greatest compliment I can give to a villain. He's deliciously sweet and endearing towards Young Simba but delusional in his thirst for power in other moments, giving us a baddie who is well-rounded and thoroughly terrifying. As Adult Simba, the handsome Jelani Remy gives a fantastic performance as well. He has a golden voice, making his second act solo "Endless Night" a highlight of the evening. Moreover, he's able to play the vulnerability and self-doubt of his character without turning Simba into an unsympathetic whiner, a problem many other actors have had with the role. Syndee Winters gives an equally remarkable turn as Adult Nala. I was lucky enough to see Heather Headley originate the role on Broadway fifteen years ago, and Ms. Winters is just as good. Her voice is strong, and she plays Nala as a fearless warrior, suggesting that Nala could become an even more powerful leader than Simba. Zavion J. Hill and Kailah McFadden both deserve high praise for their performances as Young Simba and Young Nala, respectively. Both are adorable and have pleasant voices; these are two young actors who demand attention.
As far as the revisions to the show go, none are noticeable unless you've seen the show before. The set is still quite beautiful and effective despite the lack of trap doors and hydraulic pieces, and the new Pride Rock set is an ingenious feat of technical artistry which is a bit closer in concept to the original Broadway set. Of the cuts to the material, none drastically change the story. While the now absent song "The Morning Report" gave a Zazu a decent solo, it didn't add anything to the plot, and its nonexistence doesn't leave a hole in the plot. However, the verses missing from "The Madness of King Scar" are a troubling cut, especially how the excised lyrics were the show's only suggestion that Scar is becoming unhinged. I'm also sad to see that the beautiful areal dance sequence in "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" did not survive the cuts as the number is now a throw-away rather than the showstopper it always was before. If a dance break needed to be removed, why not the problematic dance in "Be Prepared" in which we are treated to puzzling shirtless hyenas and music that would be more at home in a Lady Gaga video?
I suppose I'm a bit of a Lion King purist, but despite my thoughts on the few cuts to the show, The Lion King is still one of the most mesmerizing and memorable Broadway musicals, and the current national tour is an incredible treat. Simba and his entourage are still Kings of Pride Rock. Long live the king.
Top Photo: The Zebras in the opening number "The Circle of Life" from THE LION KING National Tour. Copyright Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Middle Photo: The Cheetah and Giraffes in the opening number "The Circle of Life" from THE LION KING National Tour. Copyright Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
THE LION KING plays The Bass Concert Hall at 2350 East Campus Drive, Austin 78712 now thru February 10th. Performances are Tuesdays thru Saturday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.
Tickets range from $34 - $114. VIP seats range from $139 - $154.
For tickets and more information, please visit http://austin.broadway.com