Additional Music and Lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer
Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Adapted from the screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton
Directed by Julie Taymor
Choreography by Garth Fagan
Music Supervision by Clement Ishmael
Produced by Broadway in Chicago
At the Palace Theatre, Chicago Theatre District
Look, a Lion’s Coming.
In a way, to say that Disney’s The Lion King is in town is all that’s needed to endorse it. Chicago audiences certainly seem to think so; the show, which opened on Friday, is nearly sold out. The 1997 musical, which features songs by South African musician Lebo M, in addition to Elton John and Tim Rice’s soundtrack to the original 1994 movie, has been running continuously across the world for eighteen years. In that time, the first children who fell in love with The Lion King have grown up and remained loyal to it, and at the opening night, a new generation of children sat mesmerized by director Julie Taymor’s stage concept. Featuring design elements inspired by cultures ringing the Indian Ocean, the Broadway adaptation is the kind of grand spectacle hardly ever seen onstage in modern times, and the touring version spares no expense to maintain their own puppets, costumes, makeup, scenery, and projections (by Taymor, Michael Curry, Michael Ward, Richard Hudson, and Donald Holder, respectively) up to the same standard.
Most people know the story by now; the adaptation hardly differs on any key point. We open with the mandrill shaman, Rafiki (Mukelisiwe Goba), calling out to the bongo players stationed in the boxes on either side of the red clay proscenium to begin playing. “The Circle of Life” is one of the most famous cinematic openings, and provides a magnificent introduction to the stage version as well, with its massive elephant, rhinoceros, and giraffe puppets, which elicited cheers from the children as soon as they appeared. The celebratory occasion is the anointment of Simba, the newborn lion crown prince, who will someday succeed his father, Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey), to rule the Pridelands, and maintain the delicate balance of nature.
While the rest of the animals celebrate, Mufasa’s brother, Scar (Patrick R. Brown), broods over having fallen to second place in the line of succession. Simba grows into a boisterous, but arrogant boy, and Scar manipulates him into a confrontation with a pack of hyenas. Though Mufasa saves him on that occasion, Scar next arranges Mufasa’s death to look like an accident caused by Simba’s recklessness. Devastated and wracked with guilt, Simba flees his pride, and grows into adulthood under the guardianship of Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), a pair of Meer cat and warthog slackers who teach him to hide from the world and ignore responsibility. But the Pridelands are undergoing ecological disaster due to Scar’s need to overindulge his hyena followers to maintain his rule, and Rafiki and Simba’s childhood friend, Nala (Nia Holloway), go out in search of help.
Simba as a child was played by Tré Jones, who alternates with BJ Covington. He’s quite a talented dancer, leaping nimbly through Garth Fagan’s choreography, and appealingly embodying the young Simba’s innocent selfishness. He and Mikari Tarpley (doubled with Savanna Fleischer), as the young Nala, romp on massive ostrich steeds during the famous “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” alongside the more fantastic and colorful puppets, while evading Mufasa’s majordomo, the hornbill Zazu (Drew Hirshfield). In the original movie, Zazu and Scar were voiced by British actors Rowan Atkinson and Jeremy Irons, while the other characters were voiced by Americans. Taymor, who won a Tony for this show’s costumes as well as directing it, outfits the actor manipulating the Zazu puppet with a bowler hat and tailcoat, and Scar with jodhpurs, making their English accents seem like another arrogant affectation. Patrick Brown is a much less hammy Scar than Irons; even during his song “Be Prepared” he is sardonic and restrained. Scar’s still pretty fun to hate, though.
Blaine Alden Krauss played the adult Simba at opening, but Chicago native Aaron Nelson will be stepping into the role beginning December 9. It’s important that Simba’s a decent enough guy even during his depression that the audience is rooting for him; although The Lion King’s plot is often compared to Hamlet, it’s really more of a story about growth and redemption than revenge. (Simba isn’t even aware that Scar killed Mufasa until the last few minutes.) One of the show’s most moving moments is the reprise of “He Lives in You,” a song Lebo M wrote for the direct-to-video sequel, but here, is transferred to the famous scene in which Rafiki conjures Mufasa’s spirit. There’s a clear difference in style between Lebo M’s songs and Elton John’s, with John’s being the big numbers people remember from their childhoods or watching with their kids, but Lebo M’s being more matched to Taymor’s less cute aesthetic. Likewise, the comic character puppets closely resemble their counterparts in the movie, but the more serious characters, including the colossal representation of the ghostly Mufasa and the chorus of lionesses, are intricately carved masks which can be tilted to represent all kinds of emotions with a dignity normally reserved for tragedy.
The Lion King is such a wonderful spectacle with such an appealing story, it is virtually certain to please any audience. Only very small children might have some difficulty with the hyenas; I estimate that elementary schoolers and above will love the show, as do most adults—unless they get stuck too close to the bongos. This is still Julie Taymor’s production, unchanged and undiminished from 1997. Having not seen it before and having known of Taymor mainly through the infamous Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, seeing The Lion King was also, for me, an interesting look at theatre history and Taymor’s place in it. Despite its, age, the design is still fresh. But as brilliant as the concept is, credit for the tour’s continuing success has to go to the amazingly hard-working actors and crew. It takes a lot of muscle-power to make those masks and puppets move, but they do so with grace and precision. And their voices are pretty good, too.
Playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph, Chicago. Tickets are $35-180; to order, call 800-775-2000, or visit BroadwayinChicago.com. Running time is two hours and thirty minutes, with one intermission.