Tuesday, 20 March 2012 19:34

New Orleans' Lion King Production Is Spectacular

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Dean M. Shapiro


Once upon a time (how’s that for a non-original fairy tale opening line?) there was a “Rumble in the Jungle.” The savannah, actually, to be more technically correct. Anyway, it’s not the 1974 Ali-Foreman heavyweight boxing matchup I’m referring to here. It’s THE LION KING, a Disney-fied live musical stage take-off on Shakespeare’s RICHARD III, transposed from 15th century England to the timeless African grasslands.

Battling for control over The Pridelands (a parallel kingdom to Shakespeare’s “sceptr’d isle, this England”) and Pride Rock (the royal throne), are Simba, the young lion returning from exile (akin to the heroic Earl of Richmond), and his evil, treacherous uncle, Scar, usurper of the throne (a leonine carbon copy of King Richard III). Other parallels abound. Scar is just what his name is intended to imply. The Great Bard similarly portrayed Richard III (wrongly, according to some historians) as an ugly, deformed hunchback. The ravenous, conniving hyenas, who Scar empowered while he held the throne, turn against him in the end, just as the powerful Stanley family deserted Richard during the decisive Battle of Bosworth Field, leaving Richard to his fate at the point of Richmond’s sword. Emerging victorious is Simba, in similar fashion to Richmond (crowned King Henry VII), thus ending the War of the Roses and founding a new dynasty (the Tudors).

But, alas and alack, who cares about all that boring history stuff, anyway? Whether or not this was THE LION KING authors’ intent, it really doesn’t matter. Once the production gets underway, the story line becomes secondary to the aural/visual spectacle that magically unfolds onstage before you. Add a slight modifier to “spectacle” and you come up with “spectacular” and be sure to punctuate it with an exclamation point. That’s what this production was. And, to which I will add yet another superlative: flawless! Possibly even the best – from a technical standpoint, anyway – theatrical stage production I’ve ever seen in more than half a century of theatergoing.

THE LION KING, the final production of the 2011-2012 Broadway Across America Season in New Orleans, opened on March 14 for a five-week run that ends on Sunday, April 15. Good seats are still available through the performance venue, the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, or through Ticketmaster. (Full ticket-ordering information appears at the end of this article.)

As the product of hundreds – possibly thousands - of hours of practice and experience, the colorful, imaginative tableau played out on the stage in front of you makes you forget limitations of space as it creates the illusion of stretching the action beyond the three walls and even into the fourth. With dancers and other supporting characters coming down the aisles through the audience and onto the stage, the boundaries and limitations of the traditional fourth wall are broken down as well.

The Story

The action opens with Rafiki, a shaman (sha-woman, to be more precise, if such a gender distinction exists in the prophecy sector) foretelling, in a rhythmic African tongue, the sequence of action that is to come. Then all the animals, in intricate, imaginative masks and puppet forms (the walking, stalking giraffes have to be seen to be believed!), gather before Pride Rock as the benevolent King Fufasa (Dionne Randolph) and his lioness queen Sarabi (Tryphena Wade) present their baby cub Simba as the future king and heir to the kingdom. Zazu, the obsequious hornbill (Mark David Kaplan), emcees the ceremony, marked by the noticeable absence of the king’s jealous and covetous brother, Scar (J. Anthony Crane).

As time quickly passes and the cub grows into a young Simba (alternately played by Zavion J. Hill and Adante Power), he and his equally young female runnin’ pardner Nala (Kailah McFadden and Sade Phillip-Demorcy alternating), go through a series of (mis)adventures, including a visit to the spooky, off-limits elephants’ graveyard where they encounter the three malevolent hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed (Rashada Dawan, Keith Bennett and Robbie Swift respectively) who are intent on chowing down on them after a prolonged bout of taunting. Then along comes Mufasa to save the day, along with the children’s lives.

Determined to seize the throne and disenfranchise the young Simba, Scar orchestrates a stampede of wildebeests using Simba as bait. Mufasa is trampled and killed under thousands of thundering hooves. Simba escapes, goes into exile, and wakes up one morning all grown up (Jelani Remy) greeted by Timon, a wisecracking meerkat (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa, a slow-witted, good-natured, gas-passing warthog (Adam Kozlowski). Persuaded by his two new friends to return to The Pridelands and claim the throne that’s rightfully his, Simba is joined in the quest by a now-grown and beautiful Nala (Syndee Winters). Together they triumph. Scar is overthrown and thrown over the edge of Pride Rock to the traitorous hyenas who waste no time polishing off what’s left of him. And, in typical Disney fashion, everyone lives happily ever after as “The Circle of Life” goes on.

Cast and Ensembles

Standouts in the cast are all of the above. Singling out any individual or individual plural would be unfair to all of the others but, for pure comic relief, one has to cite Kaplan’s portrayal of Zazu as the stuffy, kow-towing, squeaky voiced windbag, and Cordileone as the wisecracking, loquacious know-it-all Timon. Crane, as Scar, is easily the most erudite in his manner of delivery, delivering his lines in true Shakespearean fashion.

The ensemble singers and ensemble dancers, about a dozen in each, all performed in perfect sync, adding beautifully to the whole panoply of sight and sound. The touring orchestra, conducted by Rick Snyder, and especially the percussionists stationed on both sides of the stage above the orchestra pit, provided the music that was alternately festive and brooding, depending on the mood the onstage action was conveying. All of these supporting elements pulled together nicely, fusing the production into a cohesive whole that couldn’t have been more perfectly coordinated.

Musical Numbers

Of course, any musical is defined by its root word, “music,” and THE LION KING certainly has its share of memorable production numbers. Including repeats, there are thirteen songs in Act I and seven more in Act II. Most of the songs are in English, others in various African tongues, several of which broke out onto the pop charts, most notably the Elton John/Tim Rice penned “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Circle of Life.”

“I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” sung by Young Simba, Young Nala, Zazu and the Ensemble is especially memorable for its expressions of youthful innocence and eagerness, while “Be Prepared,” sung by Scar, the three hyenas and the Ensemble, is an ominous portend of what’s to come. And, probably for comic relief, there are even a few lines from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” thrown into the mix. Deftly woven into the overall fabric of the show, the music provided the threads that held the production together as a cohesive whole.

Production Crew

Director Julie Taymor, the first woman to win a Tony Award for Best Direction, demonstrates with this production why she so richly deserved that honor. Pulling together all of the myriad and divergent elements of a production this massive in scope could not have been an easy task.

Especially when sharing credit for mask and puppet design (with Michael Curry) and earning primary credit for costume design, and penning lyrics to one of the songs (“Endless Night”). For her part in this great undertaking, Taymor gets a big and well-deserved WOW! and BRAVO!!

Garth Fagan, who oversaw the choreography, also deserves a standing ovation for coordinating the dance numbers so synchronistically. Combining the grace of classical ballet with the hard-driving African rhythms would, in most instances, be a clash of styles and a choreographer’s worst nightmare, but it all pulled together so neatly in those big ensemble scenes.

Scenic design credits go primarily to Richard Hudson for some totally amazing backdrops and the colorful lighting design plaudits go to Donald Holder. “The man on the scene,” Head Carpenter Michael Carey, did his part admirably, coordinating all of the physical production elements into a cohesive, smooth-running whole.

Tickets and Information

Disney’s THE LION KING runs through Sunday, April 15. Show times are as follows:

• 8:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday
• 2:00 and 8:00 p.m. Saturday
• 1:00 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

There will be one 2:00 p.m. Thursday matinee on April 12, and there will not be a 6:30 performance on Sunday, April 15.

Ticket prices start as low as $30. 25 and good seats are still available. Tickets can be purchased at the theater box office in Louis Armstrong Park, ordered by calling 1-800-982-ARTS (2787) or online at www.BroadwayInNewOrleans.com. Tickets can also be ordered through Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com. For group seating of 15 or more call 504-287-0372.

The Mahalia Jackson Theater is located in Louis Armstrong Park at 1419 Basin Street. For more about the show go to http://www.lionking.com/about. For a full plot summary go to http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110357/plotsummary.

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