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Review: THE LION KING at Gammage Auditorium

Review: THE LION KING at Gammage Auditorium

On stage at Gammage Auditorium through July 31st

Disney's THE LION KING has found its way back to Tempe's Gammage Auditorium nearly a decade after its sold-out multi-week visit in 2013. Now 25 years since it's New York debut, THE LION KING is still a beast traveling the world and Broadway's third longest running musical.

And rightfully so, Julie Taymor's now legendary staging is a nightly event like no other. Her distinctive, multicultural, ritualistic work is made accessible by the world's familiarity with Disney's beloved animated classic. THE LION KING is a global hit and a terrific starter show for those (young and old) yet unexposed to the creative, unique possibilities of live theatre.

The tech on the other touring warhorses has become, at best, quaint; at worst, outdated. Once modern LED tech juggernauts like MEAN GIRLS and FROZEN pass through town, the expectation is reset for blockbuster musicals. Yet, THE LION KING continues to thrive without momentum lost by underwhelming tech.

It's the innovative, collaborative visuals Taymor has assembled from Richard Hudson's scenic design, the lighting design by Donald Holder, hair and make up by Michael Ward, costumes by Taymor, and masks and puppets by Taymor and Michael Curry, that are responsible for that success. Their designs, rooted in traditional African and Asian storytelling like shadow puppetry and Bunraku, achieve visuals astonishing for their lack of modern tech. They're impressive for their simplicity; we can see the puppeteers inside the elephants. Ms. Taymor believes the best tech of all is in the viewer's imagination.

There's not much emphasis on the familiar plot. It's a 75 minute movie stretched into a 2 hour and 40 minute event. Yet with all that extra time, we don't dive any deeper into the main characters than the animated film does. Slow plot movement in a two-act musical ensures at least some tedious moments for both children and adults.

The cast, likely with some members hundreds if not thousands of performances into their THE LION KING employ, has opening night enthusiasm and love and respect of the material well apparent. Gugwana Dlamini as Rafiki is established early as an audience favorite. Spencer Plachy as Scar manages somehow to balance camp humor and menacing terror. Nala, performed beautifully by Kayla Cyphers, is the only character with added depth beyond the animated feature. The addition of "Shadowlands", an exploration of her decision to leave Pride Rock, is an Act 2 highlight.

Celebrated South African composer Lebo M wrote and performed some of the Zulu chants that provided the film's iconic choral sound. An expansion of his involvement is among the most welcome additions to the show. The Western Pop sound of Elton John's songs is re-brushed with new orchestrations using Lebo M's style in the percussion and backing vocals.

The contributions of Elton John and Tim Rice can't be overstated though. Rice has said it's one of the lone instances in his career where the composer asked to have the full lyrics completed first. It shows in the work. Rice seems to revel in working with a blank page, his lyrics are more artistic, grand, and in control of the plane than in his other works like EVITA, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, ALADDIN, and CHESS. John's catchy melodies warm and thrive in the show's multi-cultural, collaborative environment.

THE LION KING remains an important piece of theatre. With its artistic priorities placed on advanced and accurate cultural sharing and an eco-centric theme, it is as timely as ever. No doubt it will come roaring through again in another decade for a whole new set of theatre-goers to be mesmerized when those animals start walking down the aisle.

THE LION KING runs through July 31st in Tempe, Arizona.

From This Author - Timothy Shawver

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