It’s interesting looking at The Lion King now, in the aftermath of the colossal creative implosion that was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the most expensive Broadway musical in history and one of the worst received. The latter show’s director and coauthor Julie Taymor left that production amid massive rewrites moving away from her original concept, and she’s been in the courts with the producers over royalties and fees ever since. The Lion King was a huge triumph for director Taymor; the 1997 adaptation of the 1994 Disney flick (itself seemingly a ripoff of the animated 1960s Japanese TV show Kimba the White Lion) is the highest-grossing (and fifth longest-running) Broadway show in history and won Tony Awards for best musical, best direction (Taymor), choreography and scenic, costume (Taymor again) and lighting design. So the question is, how does it hold up now, in its 15th year?
It holds up pretty darned well, to judge from the touring production that SHN has brought to the Orpheum Theatre in the show’s first visit to San Francisco since its 43-week run at that same theater way back in 2004. The Orpheum’s stage is a little too small for the show, especially the first scene in which the stage swarms with a stunning menagerie of people in half-puppet animal costumes designed by Taymor and Michael Curry for dazzling motion, but it’s so cramped up there that they have nowhere to go.
The costumes are a huge draw, and they make a big splash in the opening number, with flocks of birds and an elephant coming up the aisles, plus a marvelous cheetah, giraffes on stilts, zebras, antelopes, and more. One very smart move on Taymor’s part was not to have everyone fully covered in costume, like the Disneyland versions of the characters from the movie. You can clearly see the faces of the actors playing the characters, even if some of them are painted blue or green or orange. Some, such as the lions, have regal headdresses of lion heads on their foreheads. The hyena heads stick out from the bellies of the actors playing them, and others, such as Zazu the hornbill or Timon the…whatever the heck he is (a meerkat, apparently), are puppets carried around by actors who embody their respective roles as much as their burden does.
There’s an occasional downside to the fanciful costumes. For instance, I had no idea whatsoever that the elaborately face-painted, shamanistic griot who introduces the tale, forcefully singing in what sounds like Swahili (played forcefully and humorously by Buyi Zama) was supposed to be a mandrill or anything other than human until a bit of dialogue very late in the play.
Or course the merchandisable comic-relief characters have to look very much the way they do in the movie, so Zazu, Timon and Pumbaa the flatulant warthog all look particularly cartoony. But the architecture of Pumbaa’s costume is particularly impressive, and Zazu is always Zazu whether you’re looking at the bird or the bowler-hatted fussbudget who carries him. And because Disney can only stand for so much divergence from the familiar cartoon, everyone imitates the celebrities who voiced the movie. One hyena has to sound like Whoopi Goldberg, Timon has to sound like Nathan Lane, and so on.
If you somehow haven’t seen the Disney flick, it’s the tale of a lion cub, Simba, whose father the king is killed in what looks like an accident, and the cub and rightful heir is tricked into fleeing by his villainous uncle, Scar, who wrecks their wild kingdom by turning the savannah over to his henchmen the hyenas. Meanwhile Simba meets up with Timon and Pumbaa and lives an easygoing, fun-loving life with them until he grows up and is called back to fulfill his destiny, like the Prince Hal of the great cats. The script is written by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, adapted from the screenplay by Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton.
The movie’s songs are by Elton John and Tim Rice, most notably the novelty tune “Hakuna Matata,” which is so mercilessly catchy that for years now any phrase that even approximately scans runs through my head to the tune of that ditty, whether the phrase is “Carmina Burana” or “Kalika Purana.” The musical takes those numbers and Hans Zimmer’s score and inventively Africanizes them with choral arrangements by Lebo M that bring new life to even the most mawkish tunes, whether it’s “Circle of Life” or “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Not every song is given Ladysmith Black Mambazo-style backup vocals, mind you. The more upbeat musical numbers from the film are played pretty straight, from Scar’s menacing cabaret tango “Be Prepared” to young Simba’s peppy will-to-power anthem “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” Some of the tunes original to the stage musical aren’t necessarily African-style either, such as the hyenas’ hard rock pastiche ‘Chow Down.” Generally speaking, though, the music in the stage version is superior to the film, which is all to the good.
Adante Power is a spunky and impish young Simba, alternating with Zavion J. Hill in the role, and Jalani Remy is bursting with youthful energy as the grown-up version. Sade Phillip-Demorcy makes a formidable match for him as his childhood best friend and betrothed Nala (alternating with Kailah McFadden), and Syndee Winters is fierce and lithe as the beautiful lioness she grows up to be. Dionne Randolph is regally imposing but also warm and loving as King Mufasa, and Derek Smith is pricelessly sardonic as the scheming Scar.
Mark David Kaplan is endearingly goofy as the fussy majordomo (or “majordodo”) Zazu, a role originated on Broadway by Bay Area treasure Geoff Hoyle, and Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz are suitably amusing as pals Timon and Pumbaa.
Garth Fagan’s African-influenced choreography is great, including fanciful touches like an interpretive dance battle between the hyenas and lionesses. (There are seemingly no male lions in the pride aside from Simba, Mufasa, and Scar.)
The staging drags in places, particularly some traveling scenes that are probably supposed to be more visually engaging than they are. The climactic battle is pretty anticlimactic, although by that point you’re probably pretty tired and ready for it to wrap up. Mufasa’s death scene includes a remarkable stage effect of a stampede, using Richard Hudson’s versatile set to great advantage, and yet there’s a long stretch where it’s not at all clear what the king is doing.
It’s interesting that percussionists Stefan Monssen and Reuven Weizberg are placed so prominently in front of the wings on both sides of the stage, because they’re pretty low-key and not much to watch, only really letting loose after the curtain call, while the audience is filing out.
All in all, though, it’s an entertaining and impressive production from beginning to end, full of inventive visual elements like a makeshift bicycle of leaping antelopes, vultures swirled around by spinning stick, and dancers with tall grass on their heads. Taymor’s production strikes an admirable balance between stunning pageantry and obligatory all-smiles cheeriness, while rooting the story firmly in Africa. (Just having a large, predominantly black cast is an encouraging thing for a Disney production.) All that, and fart jokes and “Hakuna Matata” too.
Show #104 of 2012, attended November 3.