A Review

It's Good To Be King

By R. J. Donovan

With klieg lights sweeping the night sky, The Opera House officially reopened with the highly anticipated engagement of Disney's "The Lion King." Based on the successful animated film of the same name, “The Lion King” has been running on Broadway for the past seven years. The company now at the Opera House will be in Boston through Christmas.

“The Lion King’s” strong suit is its stunning visual impact -- the colors, the pageantry, the details, the incredible combination of costume and puppetry. Gazelles gracefully leap across the stage, birds soar through the air and four 18-foot giraffes bow out into the audience.

Credit for all of this lies in the talented (and Tony Award-winning) hands of director Julie Taymor, who also designed the costumes and co-designed the masks and puppets with Michael Curry. It is her inspired vision that has given the show its artistic intensity.

The evening starts off with “The Circle of Life,” one of the most exhilarating sequences of the production. Dawn breaks on the African plain as Rafiki (left), alone on a bare stage, calls the animals from the jungle to assemble at Pride Rock. The Lion King, Mufasa, and his queen, Sarabi, are about to introduce their new son, Simba, to the community.

Latecomers will be cursing themselves as they’ll miss the eye-filling spectacle of animals (including a 12 foot tall elephant) working their way through the aisles of the orchestra section and up onto the stage.

Conflicts immediately arise as Mufasa’s brother, the malicious Scar, sees Simba as an obstacle to his own evil path to the throne. So Scar deviously plots to kill both his brother and nephew, orchestrating a stampede to make it all appear an accident.

While Mufasa (left) dies, Simba survives. However, Scar convinces Simba that Mufasa’s death was entirely Simba’s fault and tells him he must leave the Pridelands in shame.

Scar then tells his own personal team of hyena-henchmen to follow the cub and kill him once and for all. Lazy beasts that they are, they ignore Scar’s orders while letting him believe Simba is dead.

As Scar assumes the throne, the remorseful Simba escapes to the jungle where he meets Timon, a vaudeville-style meerkat, and Pumbaa, a big-hearted but smelly warthog. He stays with his new friends as he grows to become a strong, young lion.

Scar, meanwhile, ruins the Pridelands in his tyrannical rule. When Simba learns of the devastation of his homeland, he returns to face Scar and correct the past.

Simba ultimately takes his rightful place as King of the Jungle. He also marries Nala, his childhood sweetheart. And as dawn once again breaks at Pride Rock, he and Nala introduce their new cub to the world. The circle of life continues.

The truly delightful aspect of the show is that it never tries to hide the machinery of its magic. The actors are clearly visible whether inside costume frames or wearing various masks and puppet parts.

Scar and Mufasa (left) both wear headress-faces which can lurch down and forward, via hydraulics, when the characters are confronted. A cheetah roams the stage, clearly manipulated by an actress, yet seemingly of one form. The two giraffes in the opening number are obviously actors on stilts, yet you have to look twice to see anything other than giraffes.

Some of the most effective elements are the most simple. When a watering hole dries up during Scar’s ruining reign, a giant circle of shimmering blue fabric slowly shrinks into the center of the stage. When Mufasa dies, the lionesses (left) mourn by pulling long strips of white ribbon from the eye holes in their masks. And the spirit of Mufasa materializes to Simba in a scene that’s so completely unexpected that the audience gasps.

Lest we forget that this show is indeed a musical, there’s the Grammy Award winning score by Elton John and Tim Rice, including “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and the no-worries anthem, “Hakuna Matata.”

The cast makes it all work as it should, with Futhi Mhlongo as Rafiki, the witch doctor-baboon (a male in the film, but female on stage); Thomas Corey Robinson as the majestic Mufasa; Mark Cameron Pow as Mufasa’s feathery comical major domo Zazu; John Plumpis as wisecracking Timon; Ben Lipitz as the lovable Pumbaa; Alan Mingo Jr. giving strength to the adult Simba; Adrienne Muller as the adult Nala; and Dan Donohue, bringing a wonderfully guttural sleaziness to the role of Scar. Donohue is particularly good in the “Be Prepared” production number. On press night, Young Simba and Young Nala were played by Brandon Kane (fresh from a tour of “Beauty & The Beast”) and Calicia Wilson (making her stage debut), respectively.

And the setting for all of this is the magnificently revitalized Opera House, which after decades of neglect and more than $40 million of meticulous restoration work spearheaded by Clear Channel Entertainment, is now, well . . . fit for a King.

"The Lion King" is at The Opera House, 539 Washington Street in Boston, through December 26. For information, call 617-931-2787.

Production Photos: Joan Marcus

-- OnStage Boston



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