Theatre Review: The Lion King
Earlier this month, the Broadway production of The Lion King surpassed The Phantom of the Opera as the best-selling show in New York history. Customarily, I’d be the first to complain about the conflation of commercial success with quality. But I have nothing to carp about, because as the touring company currently camping in Orlando’s Bob Carr aptly proves, The Lion King is the rare musical that surpasses its source material, and earns all the accolades it has received.
Fifteen years after its debut, I’ll pass on parsing the familiar plot; if you need a refresher, google “Hamlet meets Bambi in Africa.” The show has remained remarkably stable since I saw it last, save for the trimming of “Morning Report”, a pleasant but plot-slowing song in the first act. That consistency it a testament to original director/designer Julie Taymor’s insistence on teaching annual workshops to sharpen her far-flung stage companies. As a result, the opening and closing half hours of this show are still as stirring as ever, rivaling anything you’ve seen on any stage. It’s in the 90 minutes in between that you sometimes see the seams left over from grafting visionary creativity with a corporate cartoon.
Of course, the casts constantly change, especially the quickly-growing cute kids who play young Simba (Zavion J. Hill, Adante Power) and Nala (Kailah McFadden, Sade Phillip-Demorcy). Despite the title, the show’s real star is Scar, and J. Anthony Crane is superbly vilainous (without imitating Jeremy Irons) and dexterous with his mask-like headpiece. Dionne Randoph — who I interviewed with ensemble member Selene Moshell in the current issue of Orlando Weekly — isn’t as basso profundo a Mufasa as James Earl Jones (who could be?), but he exudes warmth and nobility during his brief turn and the doomed dad.
Jelani Remy and Syndee Winters, as the adult Simba and Nala, each get standout songs in the second act, and I found Mark David Kaplan’s take on Zazu much less annoying than the last actor/puppeteer I saw in the role. Unfortunately, the opposite was true for Timon and Pumba; Nick Cordileone and Adam Kozlowski are troupers for mugging away beneath overbearing costume designs, but their just-off comic timing can only invite unfair comparisons with their cinematic progenitors.
Buyi Zama’s ebullient portrayal of the mystical monkey Rafiki reminded me that this show’s real heartbeat doesn’t derive from Elton John’s pop score, but from the authentic-sounding African musical themes added by Lebo M and Hans Zimmer. Songs like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata” may have been hit singles, but they pale in comparison to soul-stirring numbers like “Shadowlands” and “He Lives in You.” Best of all are the expressive sections of music and movement without English lyrics, like the “One By One” entracte or “Nao Tse Tsa,” which communicate emotions on a deeper level than the often-clunky dialogue.
While I wish the part of the Lion King that still seems so fresh and innovative didn’t chafe against the cartoonish kid-focused moments, it is still a monumental achievement. If nothing else, the show is worth seeing to experience the Bob Carr with center aisles. Perhaps in another 5 years, we’ll be talking about how good the King still looks as he celebrates his 20th birthday at DPAC…