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Wednesday, July 15, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Old tricks, new tech make stage magic in ‘Lion King’

I enjoyed this, the second visit of the national tour of “The Lion King” to Spokane, just as much as the first, and for most of the same reasons:

•The effective use of ancient theatrical forms, including the giant Bunraku puppets and the shadow puppets.

•A first-class cast, especially skilled in South African musical forms.

•The breathtaking creativity of the costumes, including the huge masks worn above the characters’ heads.

•And, yes, I even liked the classic Disney-style comedy, provided mostly by a hornbill named Zazu, a meerkat named Timon and a wart hog named Pumbaa. I even liked the flatulence jokes.

What can I say? They made me laugh, along with most of the kids in the audience and a good portion of the adults.

The principals were, once again, world class. Dionne Randolph as Mufasa, Timothy Carter as Scar and Tyler Murree as Timon were particular standouts.

On this second viewing, however, I found an even deeper appreciation for the sheer visual creativity on display in almost every scene – most of which can be traced back to original Broadway director Julie Taymor.

The first time around, I was so impressed by the opening parade of animals in “The Circle of Life,” I could barely absorb all of the equally impressive stagecraft to follow:

•The creative use of flying rigs, allowing characters to float gracefully above the stage, used most effectively in the romantic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” scene.

•The clever evocation of the African grasslands, first through the use of waving-grass headpieces worn by chorus members, and then down on stage when Simba romps through the savanna.

•The spectacular wildebeest stampede scene, combining a revolving-cylinder effect with masses of heavily costumed chorus members.

•The shimmering night-sky scenes, filled with stars.

•Jungle scenes in which human actors become green vegetation.

•A water-crossing scene in which a waving bolt of cloth evokes a rapidly running river.

This simple, low-tech theatrical river effect has been used for centuries – and is a perfect example of what I love the most about “The Lion King.” It combines the most modern lighting and automated set technology – the massive, rotating Pride Rock – with some of the simplest and most ancient of theatrical techniques. The result is a show that draws on the magic of the future and the magic of the past, with results that exceed either alone.

Take the shadow puppetry, for instance. People have been projecting shadow figures onto backdrops for centuries, but leave it to Taymor to use it as a theatrical way to solve the problem of how to make animated movie characters come to life on stage.

The same can be said on an even grander scale of the Bunraku puppetry, in which actors in full view of the audience manipulate life-size puppets. It originated in Japan centuries ago, yet Taymor understood that this, too, would be a perfect way to allow a meerkat, a hyena and a wart hog to gambol about on stage.

I am not quite as enthusiastic about a few other aspects of “The Lion King.” The music, with the exception of the South African numbers, is not especially memorable. The plot, despite its mythical “return of the king” plot, is not what you would call complex.

Yet it retains almost all of the charm and emotional power of the 1994 film, while adding something that may outlive the show itself. It shows an entire generation of young theatergoers just how much magic can be generated, every night, on a live stage.

“The Lion King” continues at the INB Performing Arts Center through Dec. 6. For tickets, call (800) 325-SEAT.
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