'Lion King' Tour Reigns Supreme

Lion King
Courtesy of Joan Marcus

Rafiki (Phindile Mkhize) sings "The Circle of Life" at the beginning of the national tour of "The Lion King", which runs through March 21.

Elephants, antelopes, birds, and zebras stampede down the aisles of the Boston Opera House, sweeping up the audience in an exciting rush of colors, feathers, fur, and African drumming. From this high-energy, visually explosive opening scene, the Broadway national tour of “The Lion King”—which runs through March 21—dazzles. In a spectacle of lights, songs, puppetry, and dance, the musical’s timeless story unfolds with stunning images and special effects. Despite a few weak performances and a pace that drags towards the end, “The Lion King” remains a successful and entertaining experience that’s worthy of its hype.

The musical—based on the 1994 Disney film, making its Broadway debut in 1997—has won seven Tony awards, including Best Musical. Featuring the music of Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice, the show was originally directed by Julie Taymor, also known for her 2007 film “Across the Universe”.

The plot centers on Simba, a young lion who­—with the aid of his animal friends Timon, Pumbaa, Zazu, and Rafiki—must reclaim his rightful throne after his father Mufasa is murdered by his jealous uncle Scar.

Easily the most remarkable element of the show is the technical construction of its costumes and props. Actors dressed as blades of grass sport spindly wicker frames around their waists that resemble a more fluid version of hoop skirts, swaying and swirling like reeds in a gentle Sahara breeze. The coarse spines of hair snaking along the hunched backs of the hyenas create spooky, spiky silhouettes.

Best of these designs, perhaps, are the diaphanous birds which are suspended at the top of long, wiry poles carefully manipulated by graceful actors below. Whether colorful and exuberantly used—as in dazzling high-production numbers like “Hakuna Matata”—or charcoal gray and hauntingly employed—as buzzards circling a carcass in Scar’s elephant graveyard—the airy bird-puppets are some of the most elegant technical elements in the show.

Some of the show’s actors are particularly adroit at realizing the creative possibilities afforded by this intricate attire. Scar (Brent Harris), for instance, does a particularly skillful job of inhabiting his body as a lion, making excellent use of his elaborate costume to leap, prowl, and slink like a true feline.

Also impressive is Jerome Stephens Jr., who plays the young Simba. Though only a skinny boy of nine, he manages to pack a musical punch. While his lines largely read as formulaic and somewhat trite (“I just want to be brave like you, Dad,” he insists cloyingly to his father), and the development of his character is confined to the wild, wide-eye child role, he’s undeniably a vocal powerhouse packed in a pint-sized body.

Less successfully, the characters of Timon (Tyler Muree) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz) dutifully serve their function of lighthearted comic relief, but both actors appear to be consciously straining to imitate the precise vocal accents and delivery style of their cinematic predecessors (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, respectively). Worse, Zazu’s (Tony Freeman) over-acted comic antics and Rafiki’s (Phindile Mkhize) bouts of verbal incomprehensibility quickly grow tiresome.

Certain performance numbers, however, are downright spectacular, like the well-known tune “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” which features 18-foot high tent-like giraffe neck-puppets that bow and bend to the audience, even nuzzling a few lucky theatergoers in the front row.

The instrumental talents in the show are also not to be missed, as the orchestra boxes on the right and left sides of the stage contain a single bongo drummer in each, thus engaging the space beyond the main stage with the work’s pounding African heartbeat. The orchestra is best appreciated on intensely percussive numbers like the sinister song “Be Prepared,” and in brief, yet beautiful interludes which usually accompany transitional movement scenes.

While overall the show’s dialogue remains rather predictable and plain, a brief scene between Zazu and Scar allows time for the exchange of a few clever remarks. As a depressed Scar complains about his now famine-and-disease plagued kingdom, he moans, “I feel so empty,” to which the disdainful Zazu quips, “You’re a regular Ennui the Eighth, sire.” Later in the same scene, when Scar tries to rally himself by insisting, “I need to buck up,” Zazu once more dryly retorts, “You’ve already bucked up royally”.

A few additions to the plot prove unnecessary, such as the musical number entitled “The Morning Report,” which is a sunny but vapid tune led by Zazu that appears to have been added solely for the enjoyment of the under-6 crowd, as it proves content-less and only weakly amusing. And at a total run time of two hours and 45 minutes, plenty of opportunities for cutting superfluous scenes exist.

Ultimately, however, even the show’s somewhat lagging pace and occasionally less-than-stellar acting can’t detract from the overall sense of magic and spectacle created by the work. “The Lion King” provides the perfect mid-winter retreat to sunny Africa, offering a lush and immersive musical escape to the color and fantasy of an exotic land.               —Staff writer Clio C. Smurro can be reached at csmurro@fas.harvard.edu.

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