Sunday, October 30, 2005

opening-night review of The Lion King

at the Opera House through Dec. 4

Having gone on and on in The Inlander’s special 16-page insert last week about the virtues of this show -- you might say I lionized it -- I thought I’d try specifying what doesn’t work as well. No show’s perfect, after all.

Yet while I have some criticisms, I found myself (on second viewing, having seen the show once already in Portland) taking note of aspects of the show that I liked even better this time around.

Any long-running Disney show like The Lion King is going to possess obvious virtues: simultaneous appeal to adults and children; a score that ranges from catchy pop to rock anthems to haunting South African chant; lyrics that skim the surface of the mundane but which, in the context of performance, ascend spiritual heights; a plot that incorporates elements of myth, Shakespeare, the Bible and world religious traditions; director Julie Taymor’s inventive means (i.e., puppets of all kinds) in pulling off what she calls the “double event” (human-animal interaction); and the kind of technical wizardry you expect from Disney Imagineers (along with much more).

Still, sometimes the gears grind; even at Disneyland itself, sometimes the gizmos that animate those buccaneers on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride go haywire, too. On Saturday night at the Opera House, the sound quality and spotlight steadiness wavered in a few places. During “Hakuna Matata,” Young Simba didn’t swing out on a vine so as to set up the Tarzan-exuberant first entrance of Simba the young man. After the Timon doll fell to its “death” on the waterfall, a stagehand could be seen crawling out on hands and knees -- out there among the crocodiles -- to retrieve it.

But those are just happenstance problems with a particular performance. There are some missteps in the show itself. The “trickster” characters that accompany Young Simba and Young Nala during “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” while colorful, seem silly. Maybe it’s because those are the show’s only full-body puppets (with the actors concealed entirely inside); maybe that’s why they seem inconsistent with the rest of the production. But by the time the child actors came out riding on top of enormous birds, all I could visualize was Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and badly decorated floats. Speaking of kid actors: I didn’t buy Young Simba’s grief after the stampede, either here or in Portland. In an otherwise very good performance, Khaleel Mandel Carter has to sell, at that moment, desolation and loneliness. Dad’s gone, and he’s all alone; the moment depends on it.

A second defect crying out for a script doctor: The vaudeville routine that Timon and Pumbaa break into at the start of the final Simba/Scar face-off is badly misjudged. Clearly, the Disney folks felt a need to lighten the mood lest matters get too heavy for young ones’ minds. And just as clearly, they’re right in an important way: Both audiences I was part of laughed and applauded. But we get that the meerkat-warthog combo are a team meant to provide comic relief. The pink-feather-boa nonsense descends into silliness and cheapens the good-vs.-evil combat that follows. Another overly silly moment arrives in one of the Elton John tunes added to the stage show, “The Morning Report.” I was amazed by Derek Hasenstab’s rubber-limbed dexterity, puppetry skills and vocal inflections as Zazu. But the song comes off as a contrived attempt to show that Mufasa has a lighter side and to insert some comedy in among the first couple of trips to Scar’s scary cave. For plot purposes, dialogue conveys what we need to know anyway (when Mufasa surveys the Pridelands with Young Simba).

It’s not just that Taymor (or Disney cajoling Taymor) isn’t trusting the kids to cope with the more serious or lyrical or tragic plot events; she (and they) aren’t trusting the adults. There’s so much good comic byplay in this show (Zazu telling off the usurper in “The Madness of King Scar,” for example), that we don’t need entire comic numbers to hold our fears at bay.

And proof of that arrives late in the show, when the Lion King script juxtaposes moments in which seriousness is undercut by comedy, and comedy strengthened by its proximity to seriousness. At the end of “Endless Night,” when Simba is encouraged by the chorus’ affirmation that “the sun will rise” (with its Christian sun/son wordplay also hinting at religious faith), Rafiki (the baboon woman and shaman) appears to intuit that Simba, long thought dead, is actually alive. “He’s alive!” she exclaims -- and the next line of dialogue has Pumbaa waddling in, frightened of an unfamiliar lioness (Nala) and screaming, “She’s gonna eat me!” Life, death; the gift of life made more meaningful by being snatched out of the jaws of death; our fears of death made less frightening by the needless fretting of the worrywart warthog. _That’s_ the way to balance the profound and the ludicrous: not by inserting a contrived comic musical number, but by juxtaposing moments and letting the audience make the connection (as so much of The Lion King does anyway, and does so well).

There are even more things about this show that I found myself jotting down, even on a second viewing. In an overwhelmingly white town, how great is it to see a predominately black cast? And outside of pop music and sports, where else in America today (as playwright Richard Greenberg puts it) do people of pallor adulate people of color? In Portland, a Disney flack told me a story about an African-American family in Atlanta treating this show just like another trip to the movies -- until the opening parade of animals showed them their people, enacted their story of displacement and lost parents. The Lion King’s universal themes have built up its years of success, but its sheer African pride may resonate especially with people whose lineage can be traced back to that continent.

More good aspects of the show that I just couldn’t help noting the second time through: The lionesses’ choreography, for one. Swirls, leaps, legs brought to horizontal, hip thrusts, those elegant and stoic masks atop their heads, that fabric billowing behind them as they scurried across the savanna -- Garth Fagan’s dance designs are powerful. One of my companions commented that the lions in this show had something to learn about catlike moves from the cast of Cats. But I disagree. There is goal is impersonation; here, Taymor wants the human only partly submerged in the animal.

Speaking of joyous choreography, check out the energy of the three lead dancers and singers in “One by One,” the entr’acte number that reappears so forcefully (even when you know it’s coming) at the end of “He Lives in You.” When you think of eight shows a week and what city are we in now and the same old routine every night, those men get the award.

I was impressed with how forcefully Ta’Rea Campbell transformed “Shadowland” from a quiet ballad to a forceful plea. While her projection wavered a bit in “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” here she was persuasive and defiant, fulfilling Taymor’s intention of having forceful women more prominent in the Lion King’s stage version.

The aerial ballet during “Can You Feel,” just as beautiful, seemed unduly short: Because I understood its symbolism better (three couples embodying friendly, romantic and erotic love), I just wanted that episode to go on and on. It also hit me that this is a Peter Pan kind of moment: the dream we all have of being free of responsibility, of being able just to fly. A little bit of Cirque du Soleil, but in a narrative context that empowers the acrobatics with deeper significance.

And now I’m reduced to simply listing all the other additional things I enjoyed about The Lion King: the Simba and Nala puppets chasing through the grass held aloft; Rafiki’s extended joke; the swirling elephant-graveyard bones; the gray palette for the sterility of the hyenas; those giant banana leaves flown in from above; the way Nala, upon being reunited with Simba, leaps at and straddles him, hinting for a moment at the eroticism to come; and a couple of light shifts that simply had me scribbling “green!” and “blue!”

For comments on how the show differs by being seen from the good seats and from the cheap seats; on whether a spectacle-laden show like The Lion King truly appeals to our imaginations as much or more than movies do; and on how this 800-pound gorilla of a theatrical extravaganza at the Opera House fits into Spokane’s local theater scene, please pick up a copy of The Inlander this Thursday with a revised and condensed version of this review. And thanks for reading.


At November 01, 2005 1:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree Bobo I thought the airial ballet was silly it was like ok what have we not done yet oh fly people made no sense.Lots of stunning performances amazing talent in the end felt like a theme park to me.

At November 01, 2005 1:43 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

I tried to convey the actors' explanation of what the aerial ballet "means" in the Nala & Simba portion of last week's L.K. insert -- though their explanations don't make it a good thing, necessarily.

I sense what you mean about "theme park" -- but would we be thinking that if this weren't a Disney show? I can't think of a Disney amusement-park ride that tries to make a thematic assertion (we are all interlinked) in this way (well, It's a Small World, but even this show itself pokes fun at that ride).

In other words, was it _simply_ a slack-jawed, wow-that's-awesome spectacle, or did it get beyond sensationalism into matters of the heart? L.K. may have its faults, but it's more than just a roller coaster ride.

At November 01, 2005 2:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

No theme parks such as Disney put up fabulous shows on the stages at the parks with great technical skill I was not talking about rides.It was a beautiful show stunning to look I personaly was not taken anywhere.

At November 04, 2005 6:18 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

A follow-up to the fabulous black cast: The actor playing Scar -- one of the only European/white actors in the show, said that at an early rehearsal, he looked around and was overwhelmed at how absolutely beautiful the cast was. His whole interview is posted online at


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