Simba is born
The African Serengeti comes to life every night at the New Amsterdam Theatre, the old stomping grounds of Ziegfeld and his girls. The old ghosts of the dancing chorus girls are wiped away as the procession of exotic animals parade on the stage, each one more gasp inducing than the last. Giraffes, hippos, elephants, birds, zebras, and lions appear making it hard to believe that you are in New York, but in the natural habitats of these animals. These are not your average, ordinary animals, but animals painstakingly brought to life by an actor who is no longer just an actor, but a new breed of animal that can sing and dance.
The spectacle that is The Lion King is the brain child of director/designer Julie Taymor who took one of Disney’s most beloved and successful films and brought it to the stage in an innovative way.
The stage version could have easily been filled with cardboard cut out lions and hyenas that strip away any of the emotion brought about by the film. Instead she used the ancient form of puppetry called Bunraku. This Japanese theater form started in the 16th century where the puppeteers are visible to the audience and control large puppet dolls while a narrator tells the story. There is no attempt to cover up the man “behind the curtain.” The man and the puppet are one cohesive unit, complimenting each other. The mask represents the character that we are familiar with and the actor shows the emotion that a cartoon character cannot. Every scene brings on a new and innovative form of staging and lighting.
The stars form Mufassa
A beautiful dance is performed by the female lions, a waterfall appears on the stage, brilliant stars appear and form the spectral presence of Mufassa to guide Simba, a stage-full of hyenas line up to worship Scar, and a herd of wildebeests appear on stage appearing to run straight for you. There is nothing like it on Broadway.
Everyone knows the story of the Circle of Life. Mufassa, the king of the lions, has just produced an heir Simba. Mufassa’s brother Scar is jealous of his brother and succeeds in murdering him, and convincing Simba that it is his fault. Simba leaves his home, but is always haunted by the memory of his father. He eventually realizes he must return to his home to de-thrown Scar and take his rightful place as king and in the circle of life.
When I first saw the film, I was enamored with it, shedding a tear at the loss of Mufassa, rooting for the return of Simba, but now somehow it doesn’t hold the same feeling for me. The story is a carbon copy of the film down to the exact dialogue. The actor who portrays Scar is just about impersonating Jeremy Irons. Once you have become used to the awe inspiring staging, there is little left. The film ran 75 minutes where the musical runs 2hours and 40 minutes. The story seems stretched too far at times. The second half of the story concerning the adult Simba is more compelling and enjoyable.
The familiar tunes like “Hakuna Matata” and “Be Prepared” are present, but there are new songs and music. New tribal music supplements, but the best of the new music is a powerful ballad sung by Simba titled, “Endless Night,” where Simba asks his father why he has abandoned him and why he is no longer a guide and presence in his life. It is beautifully sung by Josh Tower, and would have been a great edition to the film. A very strange dance-mix version of “Be Prepared” had me scratching my head, thinking that some of the music seemed to serve no purpose to the story, just to show off Taymor’s vision. Even though it is a great vision, there were times I were wishing they would just get on with it.
The characters and actors merge together as one
I can imagine it is very difficult for an actor to show emotion from behind a mask. These actor are immensely successful at it.
Mufassa reveals his human side
While revealing their masks their animal side is shown, but with just a lift of the head their human side is shown with all the worry, fear, and anger that comes with human nature. There are some actors with masks, some with total costumes, and some with just puppets. Even though the actor is always visible, he is not seen, just the character. The actor and the character flow from each other. They are one and the same.
The Lion King is not to me missed on Broadway. It is a truly innovative and awe inspiring event. The opening number, “Circle of Life” transports you to Africa and is worth the price of admission alone. At times it is hampered by a very literal adaptation of the film, and chooses style over content.Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.