Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Big Hakuna: The Lion King roars back

Posted By on Tue, Apr 8, 2008 at 8:16 PM

click to enlarge s04-01-he-lives-in-you3.jpg

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

The word “pageantry” might best sum up the The Lion King’s considerable virtues as a stage musical. Original director Julie Taymor took Disney’s blandly entertaining cartoon feature and turned it into a multi-cultural fiesta. The elaborate animal costumes, props and oversized puppets evoke such splendid spectacles as Carnival in Rio, Mardi Gras in New Orleans and your average Cirque du Soleil display.

Seeing the show at the Atlanta Civic Center on April 5 affirmed my feelings about the tour when I first reviewed it in February of 2005: the further it gets from Elton John’s songs as the source material, the more impressive it is. I can’t claim to be a student of African music, so for all I know, choral director Lebo M’s choruses like “Grasslands Chant” and “One by One” might be about as authentic as “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is compared to real rock and roll. In the theater, however, they’re stunningly beautiful, soaring melodies. “Grasslands Chant” features the chorus wearing headdresses of high grass, through which we can see a puppet Lion King Mufasa as he teaches his cub Simba to stalk prey. Taymor's Lion King features many magical moments that hold up better to repeat viewings than the jokes, which were corny even in the 1994 film.

I took my five year old daughter to see The Lion King, and was curious about her reaction: she hadn’t seen the movie in years and knew little of what the show's animal characters would look like. Frankly, at first it blew her mind a little. It’s a little loud for a kid on the fourth row of the Atlanta Civic Center, particularly when Phindile Mkhize’s Rafiki opens the show with the out-of-nowhere outburst “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba!” My daughter confessed to being a little scared at her first sight of the giraffes-on-stilts, and in the elephant graveyard scene, the steam geysers made her jump. It's a long show for a little kid — the first act is well over an hour — so I gave her the option of going home at intermission if she'd had enough.

Instead, she wanted to see how it ended and wasn't too upset by the death of Mufasa. I think after about an hour, Taymor's concepts (like the animal costumes with visible performers) clicked for her, and I believe she was curious to see what other visual wonders the show would present. And The Lion King has no shortage of those.

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