Review: ‘The Lion King’
BY RUTH BINGHAM / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Few shows have as spectacular an opening as “The Lion King,” with its huge, red sun rising through heat waves and its parade of larger-than-life stage puppets in a celebration of color, light, and dancing to soaring music.
‘THE LION KING’
» Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave.
Adults as well as children swivel around in their seats, trying to see everything at once. Whether observing it as panorama from balcony seats or immersed in it on orchestra level, audiences are invariably entranced, reminding us of the power of live theater.
That first scene alone is worth the price of a ticket.
Incredibly, “The Lion King” has been around for twenty (20!) years – the film debuted in 1994, the Broadway show in 1997 – and remains the highest-grossing Broadway musical of all time. It has been seven years since the show visited Honolulu; this could well be the last time Hawaii will have the opportunity to see “Lion King” live, impressive even in its scaled-down touring version.
“The Lion King” opened at Blaisdell this past week to enthusiastic applause and standing ovations. Those familiar with the show clapped at all their favorite parts, even amid-scenes, and newcomers smiled in wonder.
The production’s revolutionary stagecraft still delights. Best known for its stage puppets designed by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry, “The Lion King” introduced a technique that made it possible for animated tales to be staged live and sparked a new genre of animated musicals – “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” and the like.
An especially nice touch was the characters’ relationship to their puppet heads: the hyenas’ comically dangling heads, powerful Mufasa’s and Scar’s detached, extendable heads, and innocent Simba’s firmly attached “good head on his shoulders.”
The puppetry work by Nick Cordileone as Timon, and especially by Andrew Gorell as Zazu was mesmerizing. Physically separate, actor and puppet kept merging into one character, so that you had to make an effort to see them separately.
Richard Hudson’s phenomenal visual design captured both feel and spirit of Africa: the rising sun, bright colors, dark clouds heavy with rain, arid deserts and lush jungles. And clever details abound: a baobab tree with symbols for leaves; rays of sun slanting across a ribbed curtain; giraffes, seemingly all neck, bending to drink; a shadow-puppet mouse scurrying across the ground; a water hole drying up, disappearing into the stage. Amazing!
Garth Fagan’s choreography is of course delightful, still novel in its melding of contemporary dance with moves idiomatic to the animals portrayed, from trotting zebras to leaping antelope, lions’ face-rubbing greetings to almost violently wild hyenas.
Many of the dancers in this production were excellent, and a core of top-notch dancers provided sparkle throughout, especially in the elephant graveyard as the group of front-and-center “hyenas.”
Animated musicals, with their total-body costumes and makeup, necessarily shift the focus from individual performers to their characters and the storyline, but some performers nonetheless stood out. Brown Lindiwe Mkhize as Rafiki, ever a favorite character, was riveting each time she came on stage, and Jelany Remi as Simba delivered a moving “Endless Night.”
L. Steven Taylor as the wise Mufasa and the children, Young Simba and Young Nala, played by Jordon A. Hall and Zyaisa Jadea Page opening night, charmed. And Patrick R. Brown made for a more snide than menacing Scar, the villain everyone loves to hate.
Musically, animated musicals are by nature part-live, part-production. Heavily miked and frequently backed by off-stage singers, soloists play an almost karaoke-like role, embedded in the soundscape rather than carrying it.
On opening night, ensembles were struggling to mesh their intonation, and several solos had rough edges or backup choruses, but there were also lovely moments, such as the dirge trio between Mkhize (Rafiki), Page (Young Nala), and Tryphena Wade (Sarabi).
Rick Snyder expertly, seamlessly conducted the relatively large orchestra, which was large for a touring Broadway show and including two large percussion balconies, as well as several local musicians, so the pit and balconies are worth checking out during intermission.
A generation from now, it will still mean something to say, “I saw ‘The Lion King’ live.”
If you haven’t yet, don’t miss it. Take the kids for excitement. Go twice to catch the details.
Ruth Bingham received her doctorate in musicology from Cornell University and has reviewed the musical arts for more than 25 years.