The best part of The Lion King is the first five or ten minutes. A solitary singer stands on stage: a brightly patched, wise-woman/jester figure. She turns out to be Rafiki, the baboon. Her song is full-throated and joyous, and it's soon joined by other voices and rhythmic drumming. Animals converge, swaying, lumbering and dancing down the aisles of the auditorium: a huge gray elephant, giraffes with elegant necks, leaping antelopes, a smoothly slinking cheetah, a rapturous flight of birds. This is, as the name of the song tells us, a celebration of "The Circle of Life," communicating the essential oneness of animals, birds, trees, people, even grassland.
The human/animal protagonists of The Lion King are physically beautiful; their movement, too, is beautiful. As anyone who's followed the hype of the last few weeks knows, these creatures are the singular achievement of director/designer Julie Taymor, who decided that rather than strive for some kind of verisimilitude or try to replicate the cartoon figures of Disney's movie, she'd marry costume, dance, imagination, technology and the possibilities of the human form to suggest the essence -- perhaps the soul -- of the animals. Birds swoop from poles held aloft by dancers; the shapes of antelope curve from human arms and heads. For many of the characters, the audience sees both the fixed animal mask -- which can be made expressive by clever manipulation -- and the human face beneath it. Like myths and stories about centaurs, the Minotaur, the great god Pan, the Scottish silkie -- a seal man who brings love and death to local maidens -- and even Hugh Lofting's Dr. Dolittle, all of this seems to stir some archetypal memory, the memory of a connection to the animal world that's now forever lost. In short, it's a striking artistic achievement.
At intervals during the very long evening that follows, this magic is reanimated. Hyenas crouch like gargoyles; huge, sorrowful, picked-over carcasses delineate an elephant graveyard; grasses slither sinuously; an apricot sky turns a menacing red as the villain, Scar, plots the downfall of his noble brother, Mufasa; Mufasa, murdered, lies in solitary state like an Egyptian pharaoh. But no matter how many serious artists you employ to dress it up, underneath it all, this is still a Disney show, following the standard Disney formula. The music is enlivened by wonderful African rhythms (courtesy of Lebo M and Mark Mancina), but you still have to put up with Elton John's insipid melodies. The dialogue is at a nine-year-old level:
The Lion King
Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
Through June 23, 303-893-4100
Scar (despondent over the failure of his reign): I need to be bucked up.
Zazu (a counselor): You've already bucked up. Royally.
Here's the plot: Mufasa, a great and wise ruler, rejoices in the birth of his son, Simba. Simba's a mischievous kid, playing with his friend Nala and accompanied everywhere he goes by the hornbill Zazu -- another ingenious fusion of actor and bird. (Fussy, ineffectual, funny and goodhearted, Zazu is also a stock Disney character -- the adult kids love because they feel more competent than he is.) Through trickery, Scar kills Mufasa. Simba, convinced he's responsible for his father's death, flees into the wilderness. It's not for forty days and nights, but the religious symbolism -- though fuzzied up and prettified -- is clear. There he meets the comic relief, Timon, the meerkat, and the warthog Pumbaa. With his wisecracking Noo Yawk accent, Timon comes across like Bugs Bunny.
Young Simba must grow up to reclaim his crown and save his subjects, who are suffering terribly under Uncle Scar's rule. Of course, he must look into his soul and find his mighty father deep within before he does. And -- of course -- Nala has meanwhile grown up to be one of those feisty beauties with whom the Disney studios a couple of decades ago began answering feminist critics who found earlier heroines stereotypical.
There's not a shred of fear, suspense or genuine pity evoked by The Lion King. Any emotion it rouses comes from the puppetry and the special effects -- the wildebeest stampede, the flowing river in which Timon almost drowns. That's what disheartens me about the mammoth success of this production. People will come to see it who rarely or never go to the theater, but it's unlikely to build a love or understanding of the medium, because, no matter how talented the visual and choreographic artists involved, at bottom it isn't intended to. It's a product. As I watched, the term "trade dress" kept going through my mind. This is the strategy that ensures the consistency of a corporate image. A Kentucky Fried Chicken in Prague must look like the one in Delhi; a Barnes & Noble in New York should employ the same architecture, stock the same books and utilize the same promotional material as a branch in Kansas. But the best theater is idiosyncratic. You go in order to understand more deeply what it means to be human, to experience the vagaries, depths, limits and playfulness of the imagination and perhaps to be surprised, challenged or thrown off balance. You want to see how this particular actor interprets Hamlet, how that director views Hedda Gabler. The Lion King isn't about any of these things. It's about scenery, costume and the soothingly familiar.
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I saw the show at the Lyceum Theatre in London a few years ago. It was more beautiful there than in Denver because the theater was much bigger, and you got the full effect of those magnificent pacing animals; when they congregated on stage, they clustered into more pleasing patterns. It seems to me the choreography, too, profited. But give or take some differing levels of talent, the performances were almost identical. Mufasa roared and Scar rehearsed his plots in London exactly as they do in Denver. The line readings and intonations could come from any Disney film. There's some formidable acting talent in this touring production of The Lion King, but it's hard to imagine one of the actors saying, "I have a new idea: Let's try it this way."
That said, the actors must be given their due. Patrick Page is a terrific Scar, and Jeffrey Binder an excellent Zazu. Kissy Simmons is as charming a Nala as I can imagine, and she has a lovely singing voice, which soars when married to that of Fredi Walker-Brown as Rafiki on "Shadowland." John Plumpis and Blake Hammond are very funny as Timon and Pumbaa. Alton Fitzgerald White is appropriately strong and regal as Mufasa. Josh Tower makes a handsome adult Simba, though his acting is better than his singing. A couple of voices should be stronger, including that of the otherwise delightful Akil L. LuQman as young Simba. As always at the Buell, the voices are over-miked.
There's nothing wrong with an escapist evening of entertainment, and The Lion King is worth seeing for its visual effects, though I certainly wouldn't pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket. In my life, there have been a few theatrical events that I felt privileged to have experienced and that lodged in my heart forever: Laurence Olivier performing his cheesy nightclub act in The Entertainer; James Earl Jones at Denver's Auditorium Theatre in Master Harold and the Boys; Honi Coles tap-dancing in Bubbling Brown Sugar; Tyne Daly in the Denver Center's first-ever production: Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle; Frank Georgianna, founder of Boulder's late, lamented Boulder Rep, staggering to the front of the stage at the end of Howard Barker's No End of Blame, and whispering hoarsely, "Give us a pencil...somebody..."
The Lion King is not one of those events.