Famous Artists brings in the touring production of Disney’s mega-musical The Lion King
By James MacKillop
Fratenal fracas: J. Anthony Crane and Dionne Randolph face off in Famous Artists’ The Lion King.
Two questions arise in audiences’ minds as they enter a performance of The Lion King at the Mulroy Civic Center. Can this exuberant lollapalooza be squeezed into the 2,000-seat Crouse- Hinds Theater without significant loss? And did director Julie Taymor really get everything right this time when we have since seen her scrape her nose with the ill-fated Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark?
The answers, not surprisingly, are intertwined. Taymor’s vision as costumer as well as director—so edgy, even avant-garde— takes Disney imagery where it had never been before, and all that vibrancy envelops what we see and hear. If perhaps 1 percent or 2 percent has been trimmed from what people remember from Broadway or Toronto, such as the “Morning Report” song, a smaller sun and a Pride Rock that rolls rather than rising out of the floor, it doesn’t matter. All the passion, dynamism, grace and wit are here in full force.
This Famous Artists touring production has to begin with a bang: the shaman-woman’s call from the African veldt and the procession of the animals, with dancers inside or pushing evocative puppets. It’s all the imagery you see in the TV ads, including the giraffes, elephants, cheetahs, gazelles and zebras. To get them there the producers have blazed two pathways, unscrewing chairs left and right, through orchestra seating. These allow the processions to enter at the back and make their way at angles toward the stage. The second- and third-level boxes the closest to the stage are part of the action, first with costumed singers relaying the music from below. Most of the time those spaces are taken by the percussionists, both with Teutonic names, Stefan Monssen and Reuven Weizberg; they are the most prominent players in conductor Rick Snyder’s 10-person touring ensemble.
The Disney corporation and composers Elton John, Tim Rice and others knew there was a hunger for family musicals. Even though to many people Broadway means rows of scantily clad dancing girls, the Disney people knew that millions of families felt that taking the kids to a show was an expanding experience, like visiting a museum or the Grand Canyon. The long-running success of Beauty and the Beast proved that thesis.
Of the many things surprising about the embrace of The Lion King is that it is so African, not just National Geographic (i.e. patronizingly) African, but the reverent celebration of indigenous culture to warm the hearts of black studies students. The costumes, masks, makeup and Garth Fagan’s choreography all dazzle. The score, mostly by Elton John, takes rock music deep into its African roots. The 13year-old box-office acclaim for The Lion King has taken place, curiously, while the demagogic right wing has been demonizing multiculturalism. Artistry can sometimes trump propaganda.
With so much stimulation to fill the eye and the ear, audiences might not always be paying attention to the relatively simple main plot, an echo of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the constant intrusion of subplots and raucous supporting players. A young prince, Simba (alternately played by Niles Fitch or Zavion J. Hill, with Jelani Remy in the adult role) aspires to his father’s title, as he sings, “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.” His benign father Mufasa (Dionne Randolph) is done away with by his snarling, miscreant of a brother Scar (J. Anthony Crane), who also hornswaggles Simba into thinking that his carelessness and disobedience really caused the father’s death. After a period of exile where he is bolstered by Princess Nala (played by understudy Maurica Roland on opening night), Simba confronts Scar atop Pride Rock, gets him to confess, and goes on to his inheritance.
With such an experienced cast (some members have been with one production or another for up to seven years), we get a well-groomed comfortable fit without any signs of wear. Jelani Remy’s mature Simba sings movingly of his Hamlet-like angst in the key second solo, “Endless Night.” Dionne Randolph’s Musafa powerfully defines the resonant major theme, “They Lie in You,” reprised by other voices later on. On the other hand, as with so many vehicles nominally geared to youthful audiences, it’s the villain who stops us in our tracks. The role of Scar has wisely been expanded from the 1994 animated movie feature, allowing J. Anthony Crane a cakewalk of viciousness, sharpened by a haughty Oxbridge accent Simon Cowell can only yearn for. In a show where almost every number stops the action, Crane’s ironic “Be Prepared” and “The Madness of King Scar” stand out.
More then half the time we are looking at characters other than those key to the plot, most of whom appear in heavier costumes. First among them is a kind shaman named Rafiki (Buyi Zama), described as a mandrill-baboon. This was a smaller role assigned to a male in the film, then expanded and made female for the stage by director Taymor. Having played Rafiki on three continents, Buyi Zama brings both authority and incalculable mystery, beginning with the harkening “Circle of Life” in the first act and the concluding “He Lives in You” at the end of the second. She’s also adept at those unvoiced Zulu clicks you have to be born to in order to sing.
A host of vaudevillian comic supporting players appear either as puppets, hand and full-body, or are covered in such heavy costumes as to be unrecognizable offstage. The yellow-billed hornbill Zazu (handled and voiced by Mark David Kaplan) retains the British accent of Rowan Atkinson in the movie. Despite looking like a cartoon character, Zazu becomes a take-charge figure as Mufasa’s steward and gofer, nagging the young Simba and Nala, and suffering ridicule for his efforts. Gutsily, Zazu also confronts Scar and is nearly eaten alive by him. He’s also the first gagster of the story, saying of Scar, “He’d make a very handsome throw rug,” and “Whenever he gets dirty you could take him out and beat him.”
Physical comedy is the forte of the three tumbling hyenas, Shenzi (Monica L. Patton), Banzai (Omari Tau) and Ed (Ben Roseberry), whom we cannot always keep straight. Along with their moron humor, they show up continually starting with the gross-out “Chow Down” in the elephant graveyard, but also backing up Scar in his two aforementioned big numbers. Perhaps because of the covers over their faces, the hyenas’ verbal assaults were not always audible, even in orchestra row K where this reviewer sat.
Two more creatures join with Simba when he is attacked by vultures and become prominent in the second act: Timon the mongoose (a slack, fabric puppet handled and voiced by Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa the warthog (a body puppet enveloping and voiced by Ben Lipitz). Their low humor, notably Pumbaa’s eye-watering flatulence, provides comic relief running parallel to but not undercutting the resolution.
Many commentators have warned that The Lion King is too complex and dark for the age 5 and under audience. Well, Bambi is also dark, and most of Shrek goes over their heads, too. Julie Taymor’s vision is to startle, delight and enrapture. It still does that even when you can’t keep the names straight. This production runs through Oct. 2. See Times Table for information.