By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
It’s opening night at the Benedum for the national tour of the stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King. I’m seated on the aisle and directly across from me is a mother and her young son. He looks to be five years old and just about as freckled-face, button-cute as humanly possible. When Lion King opened on Broadway in 1997, friends who had seen it said the opening number, “Circle of Life,” is one of the most thrilling in musical theater. And sure enough, as this company launches into the song the little boy across from me is suddenly transfixed.
Director Julie Taymor has staged the sequence with the cast literally flooding the performance space from every conceivable side. There are cast members on stage singing, but soon spotlights pick up singers in the loge boxes perched high on the sides of the auditorium. And then suddenly the bulk of the company bursts through the doors at the back of the theater and begin a slow progression down the aisles dressed in Taylor’s thrilling costumes and miraculous puppetry representing the animals living in Africa making their journey to herald the birth of Simba, the young cub of Mufasa, king of Pride Rock, and his queen Sarabi.
The Lion King continues through September 29. Benedum Center, Downtown. 412/456-6666. www.trustarts.org
Elephants and gazelles, giraffes and cheetahs, flocks of birds and even an anthill … this kid, with eyes like tea saucers, couldn’t take it all in. He was so agog that I was wondering if he’d end up needing to be life-flighted out of there. The second act opens in a similar fashion; the cast again enters from the back of the house singing another huge choral number. One of the performers – he had to be six and half feet tall – stopped in the aisle near us. He looked down, spotted this little kid staring up at him as if he were God, reached down and shared a high five with the by-now delirious child. I have a feeling that boy isn’t going to wash that hand for at least the next 10 years.
Whatever reservations I may have about The Lion King pale in comparison to that moment. For the target audience, this show is nothing short of nirvana.
Which, is absolutely not to say that my enjoyment of The Lion King is based solely on watching this kid have the best night of his life thus far. It’s a production that, aesthetically speaking, is a monumental achievement.
To really appreciate the Lion King, it helps if, through a series of bad career choices, you’ve had to sit through all of the other stage versions of Disney musicals dragging their way through town. Each of them – Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin – have only ever attempted to recreate the movie on stage and are little more than an addendum to their source material. When you consider how zealously Disney protects its brand, it’s rather surprising to think that this multi-national corporation entrusted this adaptation to Taymor who, back in the 1990s, was anything but a commercial musical comedy director.
Taymor has given the show an honest-to-God artistic point of view. The entire look of the show seems to have been created from the simple, natural elements you might find on an African veld; branches and twigs, rudimentary cloth, bones, native plants, etc. Of course, you know that the show’s physical budget probably runs into the millions, but the encumbered elegance of Taymor’s designs can be absolutely astonishing. And how she approaches and triumphs over the always tricky problem of humans playing animals onstage is nothing short of brilliant.
And the memory of those elements is something that little kid is going to carry with him for the rest of his life.
Plus, it’s fortunate for him is that it’ll be years before he turns into a Processed City Bitch® like me. Because once you reach that stage it becomes a matter of course – even if you sometimes wish it didn’t – for the sublime to be subsumed by the stupid.
The Lion King is a vapid, ridiculous show. It’s got this goofy, Hamlet-esque story about scheming royalty and the it-never-gets old subplot about a teenage boy not wanting to become a hero. Oh wait, he’s a cub, not a boy … that’s fresh! The fact that Taymor manages to obscure this startling obvious fact for nearly an act and a half with her wizardry is a testament to her genius. (Although what happened to these abilities when she directed the now legendary Broadway flop Spiderman musical is anybody’s guess.)
The songs in Lion King are mostly pop tunes from Elton John, none of which sound like he was trying very hard and the lyrics by Tim Rice just meet the level of “serviceable.” It still astounds me that this show won the Tony for Best Musical, beating out the far better Ragtime.
It’s a huge cast of vastly impressive talent who, thanks to their time on the tour, know exactly where the high points occur and have the precise skills to drive it all home. Buyi Zama, Gerald Ramsey, Greg Jackson, Spencer Plachy, Nick Cordileone, Ben Lipitz, Jared Dixon and Nia Holloway are just a few of the performers who will – without question – be the epitome of what that little boy will always consider to be the greatest actors in the world.