BWW Review: An Awe-Inspiring LION KING at SHEA'S BUFFALO Theatre
Julie Taymor may not be a household name, but her magical staging and mesmerizing creativity is most likely the reason why THE LION KING has become a world wide phenomenon. The termed blockbuster is tossed about all too frequently but the Disney stage production of their 1994 animated musical has garnered such praise that even on repeat viewing, audiences still are captivated.The story of the young lion cub Simba being prepped by his father Mufasa to be the next Lion King unfolds as the evil uncle, Scar, does everything in his power to attain the title of Lion King himself. Gerald Ramsey's stentorian portrayal of Mufasa was regal and loving, but in contrast his singing voice became light and often inaudible in "They Live In You." Young Simba was played at this performance by the rambunctious Ramon Reed, who was joyous to watch as he learned to roar. Gerald Caesar as older Simba is perfectly cast as the heir to the throne, full of masculine power and good looks. Mark Campbell was evil and conniving as the villain Scar.
Elton John's score, with lyrics by Tim Rice ( of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and EVITA fame), includes such hits as "Circle of Life,"Hakuna Matata," and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." The other solo musical numbers often don't measure up to those hits, but the chorus numbers sung by the large ensemble shine thanks to their inherent repetitive African rhythm that have the effect of placing the listener in a trance state.
Ms. Taymor not only directed but also designed the fantastic costumes, in addition to designing the puppets with Michael Curry. From life sized elephants and giraffes, to flocks of birds that soar above the audience controlled by humans, the myriad of costumes dazzles in their ingenuity. But Taymor's genius is most evident in the animal masks and costumes that transform human into animals- often without attempt to conceal those humans themselves. There is the toucan Zazu, hilariously played by Greg Jackson as a hand puppet of sorts. This outing has him making references to texting and singing a snippet of "Let it Go" from FROZEN. Simba's two comic sidekicks include a meerkat named Timon and warthog named Pumbaa who end up getting most of the laughs. Nick Cordileone is a riot as he pouts and struts about as Timon, while Ben Lipitz handles the huge Pumbaa garb easily.
Scenic Design by Richard Hudson is effortless in gliding across the stage, suggesting underwater, meadows of tall grass and hilltops. Donald Holder's lighting is often breathtaking in it's spectacular hues of primary colors and back lighting that complement the sets and create splendid vistas. His effects in lighting the silhouettes of Taylor's puppets added to the overall enjoyment of encountering every type of creature in the animal kingdom.
Taymor's choice of choreographer could not be more apt, engaging Garth Fagan. Based in Rochester, his successful dance company has it's own signature style based in Afro-Caribbean inspirations. The lithe propulsive dance moves are perfect for this production. The capable dancers effortlessly leap like gazelles and revel in the joyousness of Fagan's uplifting choreography.
The large cast and sumptuous production are of the highest caliber in this touring production that settles into Shea's Buffalo through Jan 7, 2018. Adults as well as children are awed by the spectacle but Julie Taymor's virtuoso imagination elevates the material to artistic brilliance in story telling.
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Buyi Zama has the charmed part of the baboon Rafiki, who gets to open the show with the famous call "Nants' Ingonyama" that now has become as famous as Brunnhilde's "Ho Jo To Ho" from Wagner's Die Walkure. Ms. Zama gleefully gets to enact her scenes in her own native tongue, which in and of itself is hysterical since she is able to tell stories with body gestures, shakes and a laugh that is infectious.