- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

It’s been a long road for “The Lion King” to reach this area, but you’d never know it to look at the vibrantly beautiful musical, which is as visually and musically dazzling as it was when it premiered in 1997.

Director Julie Taymor’s brilliant stage adaptation of the Disney animated movie brings the entire African savannah to pulsing, heat-struck life through the use of African masks, headdresses, textiles and puppetry ranging from traditional marionettes and life-sized animal figures to bunraku and shadow puppet forms.

In Miss Taymor’s inspired vision, the puppets and masks never obscure the human face and figure. In the case of lion ruler Mufasa (Thomas Corey Robinson) and his nefarious brother, Scar (Dan Donohue), the carved wooden lion masks loom atop their heads, so you can see the emotions play across their faces. The masks also are operated by pulleys, sliding down to cover the faces like armor when the characters are in full attack mode.

Masks also adorn the heads of the cast members playing the lionesses, portrayed here as graceful hunters who leap and pounce with astounding agility while clad in Miss Taymor’s costumes, which incorporate African woven cloth, beading and banded corsets to evoke hide without the use of animal prints. The costumes are a spectacle in themselves, employing various textures and primitive embellishments in a sunbaked palette that evokes the plains and jungles of Africa. The light of Africa is gorgeously rendered by Donald Holder’s lighting design.

Nowhere is Miss Taymor’s artistry more apparent than in the opening scene, “The Circle of Life,” where Mufasa and the raffish medicine woman Rafiki (Phindile) present the lion cub Simba to the animal community. The crowd roars its approval as Rafiki chants in South African, and an elephant (followed by its baby) lumbers down the aisles of the theater, accompanied by fluttering white birds, zebras, delicately gamboling antelopes and gazelles, cheetahs and giraffes. While you can see the mechanics that operate these puppets — the pulleys, wheels and cords, as well as the human beings inside — the effects are magical and pure.

“The Lion King” boasts a stirring score by Elton John and Tim Rice that has been “Africanized” by musician Lebo M to incorporate South African polyrhythms and distinct choral singing.

Miss Taymor’s jungle scenes recall the heyday of the Ziegfeld Follies, with chorus members clad in elaborate, eye-popping creations that suggest lush flowers and swaying vegetation. The jungle is the setting for the romantic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” which evokes the zinging, ping-pong emotions of Simba and Nala’s (Adrienne Muller) teenage love through pairs of dancers flying through the air and melding in various sinuous combinations. Garth Fagan’s choreography is a seamless amalgam of ballet, African dance, hip-hop, and modern dance without a trace of traditional Broadway movement.

For all its spectacle, the show tells a simple, earthy tale about a young lion’s coming of age (played by Lendsay O’Neil Brown as a cub and S.J. Hannah as young man) as he learns to accept his legacy and stand up for what is right. The musical sensitively touches on death, grief and survival of the fittest, yet never forgets that it’s meant to entertain all ages, especially children.

Scenes of heightened emotion are tempered by comic interludes, especially those featuring the characters of Timon (the excellent meerkat John Plumpis), and Pumbaa (an adorably lumpish Ben Lipitz), his merrily malodorous warthog sidekick. Abundant laughs are also provided by Mark Cameron Pow’s cockney spin on the bird character of Zazu, a major-domo whose rapid-fire chatter is a combination of BBC news briefs and acerbic asides. On the more serious side, Mr. Donohue is the embodiment of silken menace as Scar, and Mr. Robinson gives us a Mufasa of memorable strength and wisdom.

Simba’s childhood playmate Nala grows up to be a lioness of integrity and resourcefulness as portrayed by Miss Muller, who suffuses her big number, “Shadowland,” with shivery feeling. Mr. O’Neil Brown and Kyla Cherry portray the young Simba and Nala as both playful and mindful, while Mr. Hannah’s grown-up Simba combines physical prowess with a rapidly evolving sense of responsibility.

Artistry, spectacle, a terrific score and a talented acting ensemble all combine to make “The Lion King” that rarest of beasts, a perfect musical.

****

WHAT: “The Lion King,” music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice

WHERE: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 4.

TICKETS: $26.50 to $135

PHONE: 800/551-7328

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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