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BWW Review: THE LION KING - From Broadway To Shinagawa

BWW Review: THE LION KING - From Broadway To ShinagawaIn 1994, the Disney animated feature The Lion King made history as the highest grossing film of the year. Three years later on November 13, 1997, the awe-inspiring stage adaptation directed and costumed by Julie Taymor opened on Broadway. It received six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. With songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, the vibrant score is by Hans Zimmer, who recruited South African composer Lebo M. to create the textural Zulu influence. Twenty-five years later, its legacy continues to reverberate around the world. In a Japanese translation of this mega hit, Shiki Theater Haru in Minato remounted the first international production of The Lion King on December 20th, 1998. This year it celebrates its 20th anniversary in Japan at the Natsu Theater in Shinagawa.

I was a child when I saw the Broadway production and couldn't grasp the genius and depth of Taymor's creativity. While working in Japan, I had the opportunity to review The Lion King and found its unique craft of visual storytelling absolutely astonishing. The storyline draws parallels to Hamlet, and the themes of identity, family, and community are gallantly propelled through music, costumes, choreography, and body language, all of which helped this non-Japanese speaking reviewer. In a largely one-race society, it sunk in: Japanese creative teams are not bound by traditional casting limitations. How refreshing!

Originally titled King Of The Jungle, the story is set in the savannas of Africa so the name was changed to The Lion King. In this remounting, two drummers are placed at the foot of the stage to set a rhythmic tone at the top of the show. Rakfi (Chieko Inoue) belts the signature Zulu straight tone to ignite the rousing anthem "Circle Of Life." The action envelopes the audience as actors and dancers enter through the house dressed in larger-than-life animal costumes. The magnitude of the opening number is something to behold in its inimitable artistry. As the tribe gathers to welcome their newest member, baby Simba, each actor demonstrates technical prowess in their physicality and command of puppetry.

In "Grassland Chant," actors enter through the floor adorned in grass hats, corsets, and straw skirts to create a golden, swaying savanna. Young Simba, played with exuberance and spunk by Kansuke Tojo, weaves in and out of the stage picture with his father Mufasa (Masatomo Utsumi). The beautiful, fluid staging shared with the ensemble's melodic chanting constructs the passage of time. Mufasa leads Simba to Pride Lands at the top of Pride Rock and instructs him to never cross the boundaries towards the elephant graveyard.

But mischievous, confident Simba hatches a plan to explore the graveyard, despite his father's warning. He leads his best friend Nala (Fuka Kaneko) in "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" and the energetic duo control towering, giraffe-like mechanisms that descend into the audience. The surprising interaction added a thrill like one you would encounter at a theme-park attraction. Japanese colloquialisms also add to the light-heartedness. When the cubs arrive at the hyena's lair they exclaim in youthful innocence "Sugoi!" or "Awesome."

Three hungry hyenas stare down the ripe meat as danger lurks on Richard Hudson's pointed, skeletal set. Shenzi (Yuko Matta), Banzai (Tetsuo Obara), and Ed (Taijun Kanemoto) make a frightful trio and assert it's time to "Chow Down." Zazu (Yoshinori Momo), the comedic hornbill tasked with protecting Simba and Nala, fails to uphold his duty but, luckily, Mufasa appears just in time. Back in Pride Land, Mufasa instructs his son about their heritage in a heartwarming delivery of "They Live In You."

Amid billowing smoke stacks that add drama to the graveyard, the quintessential Disney villain Scar (Mitsuyuki Doguchi) is eager to usurp the throne. He rallies the hyenas and warns his worshippers to "Be Prepared." Scar plots to kill Simba and Mufasa while the company chants and dances "The Stampede." In one of the most visually stimulating sections, wildebeests are backlit in yellow at the top of the stage picture while Simba is downstage center. The predators are on the attack and spin on rotating tracks, while Simba runs in place to create the illusion of a chase. Garth Fagan's athletic choreography builds in intensity as dancers emerge from the floor, holding giant masks.

Taymor's use of silks in "Rafiki Mourns" creates lyrical imagery and emotion as the dancers pull fabric of "tears" from their eyes. With Mufasa gone, Simba flees the scene. Donald Holder's lighting design aids the audience through the somber tone with a brightening lift. In the desert, Simba encounters a meerkat and warthog who take Simba under their wing and raise him to adulthood. Timon (Akira Kurokawa) and Pumbaa (Tomoyasu Suwa) perform the signature uptempo, "Hakuna Matata" with high-spirited cheer.

Act II opener, "One By One," written for the stage adaptation by Lebo M., is a passionate, spiritual, and gospel-like chant. The Zulu lyrics capture an oppressed species determined to persevere, fitting now that Scar's kingdom is struck with famine and drought. Nala, grown and mature, boldly rejects Scar's advances and seeks help outside of Pride Land. Danger and risk are symbolized in a stunning backdrop of red and orange hues as Nala (older played by Yukina Kinouchi) delivers an empowered rendition of "Shadowland."

Simba (older played by Toshiki Nagata) wrestles with regret, blaming himself for his father's death and cries out with loneliness in "Endless Night." After years of estrangement, Nala and Simba reunite and discover their attraction to one another in "Can You Feel The Love Tonight." Rakfi's soulful reprise of "He Lives In You" convinces Simba that he is the true king and must claim the throne. To salvage Pride Land from Scar's wrath, Simba returns to a tension-filled confrontation. On the raked set, the battle is center stage upon an imposing tall cliff and ends in Simba's victory. The lithe ensemble emerges on stilts, manipulates puppets, and rejoices in the uplifting finale "King Of Pride Rock/Circle Of Life."

Two months after seeing Shiki's production, I heard Massachusetts native Julie Taymor speak at a symposium. She encouraged the audience to think about perspective. In her early twenties, Taymor received a fellowship to study in Indonesia where her living quarters had no running water, electricity or telephone. Upon returning to the states four years later, Taymor's view of humanity was forever changed. It was the "discomfort zone" that led a seminal idea grow into The Lion King. "Scars give you strength," she advised. She went on to express that a physical deformity prompts dialogue and ultimately uncovers a vulnerability that could lead to your greatest triumph. The triumph I witnessed halfway around the world helped me realize an ever-widening, embraceable circle of life.

Credits: Music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice; additional music and lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer. Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi; adapted from the screenplay by Ms. Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. Directed by Ms. Taymor; choreography by Garth Fagan. Sets by Richard Hudson; costumes by Ms. Taymor; lighting by Donald Holder; mask and puppet design by Ms. Taymor and Michael Curry; music director, Joseph Church; music produced for the stage and additional score by Mr. Mancina; associate music producer, Robert Elhai; additional vocal score, vocal arrangements and choral director, Mr. M. Presented by Disney.

Shiki Production Consultant: Takuya Kubo

American Consultants: Charis Vaughn and Emmi S. Herman

Photograph: (c) Disney

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