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Talent, illusions, costumes make ‘The Lion King’ dazzle

MONDAY, OCT. 31, 2005

Anyone who loves theater should pause a moment, during the standing ovation for “The Lion King,” to offer up a silent message of thanks to creator Julie Taymor.

She may, in fact, be creating a new generation of theater fans. Many kids are getting their first exposure to live theater with “The Lion King.” Because of the astonishing creativity on display here, those kids will learn that theater can be magical, funny, moving and visually spectacular.

They learn, in short, that watching live actors on stage is at least as much fun as watching animated characters on a giant screen.

“The Lion King,” which began a six-week run at the Opera House this weekend, is a dazzler for adults as well. The formula is unbeatable: Take a simple, but archetypal, story and tell it with the most effective stage techniques of the present (automated rocks, flying dancers) and the past (puppetry, masks and shadow projection).

My first bit of advice is: Don’t show up late. In live theater, the ushers don’t seat latecomers until after the first scene. In “The Lion King,” that first scene is the most spectacular scene of all.

It’s called “The Circle of Life,” and it features a grand promenade of African creatures, marching down the two middle aisles of the Opera House. One creature doesn’t march so much as lumber. It’s an elephant, created by wrapping two actors in an ingenious contraption of hoops and fabric. (Those two middle aisles, by the way, were created especially for this number.)

Meanwhile, two enormous giraffes galumph across the stage. You have never seen stilts used to such graceful and creative effect.

I knew, of course, that this scene would be spectacular. This opening has been legendary since the show opened on Broadway in 1997.

The biggest surprise for me in this, my first viewing, was that “The Lion King” contains scene after scene rivaling that first scene for beauty, creativity and dramatic effect. Here are a few other highlights:

The “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” number – In this scene, Taymor and Co. introduce an entirely different, almost Seuss-like, menagerie of characters, all primary colors and abstract patterns. These Life Saver-colored giraffes bow their heads all the way across the orchestra pit, nearly into the front row.

The Elephant Graveyard scenes – For sheer spookiness and dread, these scenes dominated by the evil lion Scar are the most evocative of all. The enormous boneyard set is more impressive even than the movable Pride Rock set.

The Stampede – How do you create a wildebeest stampede on stage? By setting up three giant frames – distant, middle and near – and filling them with revolving contraptions resembling those used for carousel horses. By showing these charging beasts first in one frame, then another, then another, you get the illusion of a headlong approach.

If I seem to be talking strictly about technical theater feats here, don’t be misled – these illusions owe a tremendous amount to the performers’ talents. For instance, in the Stampede scene, costumed dancers, choreographed brilliantly by Garth Fagan, contribute immensely to the feeling of being in a thundering herd.

In some cases, the illusions owe everything to the dancers and performers. In one scene, we see the grasses of the savannah waving in the breeze. These grasses are on the headdresses of a stageful of dancers. The grassland sways to the rhythms of their bodies.

The performances are uniformly polished and passionate. Rufus Bonds Jr. brings dignity and power to the role of Mufasa; Larry Yando brings a delicious sense of evil to Scar; and Wallace Smith and Ta’Rea Campbell are both winning as the adult versions of Simba and Nala, respectively (a rotating cast of kids play the younger versions of those two characters).

Derek Hasenstab was remarkably entertaining as Zazu the bird – all the more remarkable because he had to manipulate the Zazu puppet’s bill and wings all while delivering perfectly timed comic dialogue. Damian Baldet and Phil Fiorini were crowd favorites as Timon and Pumbaa as well.

If “The Lion King” accomplished nothing else, it proved that an animal character with strings and wires can be brought to life with every bit as much … animation … as with animation.

“The Lion King” has one other thing going for it. The Elton John-Time Rice score is far superior to most recent Broadway scores, partly because of its evocation of South African rhythms and idioms. The 18-piece orchestra – plus two percussionists perched above the stage – created a lush and enveloping sound.

Yes, I know “The Lion King” is a steep ticket, especially for a family. All I can say is I doubt you’ll feel cheated.


 

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