The Lion King

by SOPHIE KERMAN
As a critic, it’s a rare opportunity to review a show in 2012 that I also saw on Broadway when I was twelve or thirteen. In its fifteen-year run, The Lion King has become such a Broadway staple that it’s hard to remember how revolutionary it was when it opened. Viewers marveled at how Julie Taymor‘s puppet creations seemed to bring an entire African savannah to life, and even the New York Times’ Ben Brantley compared himself to a wide-eyed four-year-old at the circus for the first time. As a middle-school student finally getting her hands on a much-coveted ticket to the sold-out production, I remember the feeling of awe as the giraffes strutted on stage on their giant stilts. The question is, how does a show this well-known and well-loved stand up to the test of time?

J. Anthony Crane as “Scar” and Dionne Randolph as “Mufasa” face off in THE LION KING National Tour. Photo credit: Copyright Disney Photo Credit Joan Marcus

There is nothing to worry about. The talented cast of the touring company delivers everything you’d hope for from the show – earnest energy, strong vocal talent, and acrobatics that would’ve been impressive even without the elaborate costuming. Elton John and Tim Rice‘s music feels comfortably familiar without being tired or worn-out, and the songs written for the musical – which audiences familiar with the movie may not have heard before – add moments of emotional gravitas to what is otherwise a plot-driven show.

Though The Lion King is much more spectacular than dramatic, there are some stand-out actors in the cast. As Scar, J. Anthony Crane - a Minneapolis native to boot - delivers all the delicious cynicism you could ask for from a villain. Simba and Nala, both in their adult and child forms, also charmed me in spite of my own resistance to Disney sweetness. (They are played by Jelani Remy and Syndee Winters as the adult lions; Niles Fitch, Zavion J. Hill, Kailah McFadden, and Sade Phillip-Demorcy alternate in their roles as cubs.)

There are some drawbacks to familiarity, since it makes the comedy a lot more difficult. Remember back when you couldn’t recite the words to Timon and Pumbaa’s opening banter of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”? (That’s the one that starts, “I can see what’s happening…” “What?”) Through no fault of the actors, The Lion King remains a staged version of that movie you probably saw one or two too many times in the mid-90s.

For Lion King veterans, the show’s novelty is meant to come from the visual elements, particularly the puppetry. To my surprise, I was less blown-away by the puppets than I had been in middle school. As skilled as they are, the actors are musical theater performers first and puppeteers second. Though technically without fault in their use of the prop masks and animal suits, many actors didn’t manage to integrate their own movements into their costumes the way, I imagine, someone with puppet-specific training might have done seamlessly.

For me, the novelty came from the vast amount of material taken directly from African song and music. The musical is over twice as long as the original 75-minute movie, and much of the added material comes from various African traditions (including songs in four different languages). One could criticize the politics of this kind of un-differentiated pan-Africanism, but its entertainment value is unquestionable. The athletic dancing and the  near-constant musical backdrop give the Lion King musical an edge over the Lion King movie, at least for its adult audiences.

This is The Lion King‘s fourth time in Minneapolis (including the show’s 1997 world premiere) and there is something to be said for a consistent, well-constructed performance. In both the show’s new and familiar moments, adults and kids alike will find lots to enjoy about the stunning production values and extremely talented ensemble of singers and dancers. Exactly as good as you’d expect it to be, The Lion King delivers 100%.

The Lion King plays at the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Orpheum Theatre (910 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 55403) until Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012. Tickets, starting as low as $30, may be purchased in person at the State Theatre Box Office (805 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, 55402, no service fees), online at HennepinTheatreTrust.org, by calling Ticketmaster at 1.800.982.2787. Weeknight availability is best.

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