The Tree of Life from "The Lion King" national tour. Photo: Joan Marcus

'The Lion King' Still Rules

By Jenn McKee

As the lights came up for "The Lion King"'s intermission at the Detroit Opera House, my nearly-five-year-old daughter looked at me and said, "They've got really good costumes."

"Yes, yes they do," I agreed with a laugh, noting that the very thing that captivates adults about the Disney stage show is the same thing that apparently captivates young kids: It's an eye-popping, distinctly wondrous theater spectacle.

Indeed, it's hard not to be awed by Julie Taymor's imaginative rendering of a hit animated film that, by rights, should be impossible to translate to the stage. A broad range of exotic animal characters (and no human ones)? Various jungle settings? A wildebeest stampede?! Check, please.

But Taymor's vision for the show, paired with Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi's book, and Elton John and Tim Rice's majestic music and lyrics (additional music and lyrics provided by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Taymor, and Hans Zimmer), makes the impossible not just possible, but delightful.

More than most adaptations of kiddie fare, "Lion King" hews closely to the original film's storyline, in which Mufasa (Dionne Randolph), the king of the jungle, has a young cub named Simba (Adante Power or Zavion J. Hill). This upsets Mufasa's jealous brother Scar (Timothy Carter), who feels his chance to seize power slipping further and further away.

Scar lures Simba into a stampede, but Mufasa, in an effort to save his son, is killed, and Scar convinces Simba to leave and never return. Though Simba soon befriends a meerkat, Timon (Nick Cordileone), and a warthog, Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), and lives among them for years, his childhood friend Nala (Syndee Winters) eventually finds him, by accident, and tells him of the terrible conditions in the Pride Lands under Scar's rule. Simba is forced to face his responsibilities and his past and confront his uncle one last time.

One of the brilliant things about Taymor's costume design is the way it fuses form with function, making, essentially, wearable puppets that move in animalistic fashion. (See the hyenas for a prime example of this). When the creatures are smaller - like the bird Zazu (Mark David Kaplan) and Timon - the actor primarily wears clothes and makeup in one color, so our eyes stay more focused on the puppet. And Taymor's costumes also cover some ground regarding set design (otherwise covered by Richard Hudson); consider, for instance, a scene in which actors enter with a sheet of tall grasses poised on their heads. As Garth Fagan's fanciful choreography assembles them in rows, they become tall grasses through which puppets representing Mufasa and Simba run together.

There are many such instances, where the lines between various tech elements - choreography, set design, costumes, lighting (designed by Donald Holder), mask and puppet design (Taymor and Michael Curry), hair and makeup (Michael Ward), and sound (Steve Canyon Kennedy) - break down and blur, thus making plain how they harmoniously complement each other to create the show's stunning illusions.

Plus, the cast is uniformly polished and strong, working together like a well-oiled machine.

Yes, with a running time of just under three hours, the show is long for a show aimed (at least in part) at kids, and its stream of powerful visuals offsets some of the story's less-riveting moments.

But the reason "The Lion King" has made such a mark on Broadway is that no one had seen anything quite like it before - and we haven't since. The spectacle is what you go for, and what still makes it a can't-miss show.


'The Lion King'

Broadway in Detroit at Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St., Detroit. Tuesday-Sunday through March 10. $25+. 313-872-1000.

Michigan Opera Theatre

1526 Broadway St.
Detroit, MI 48226

Main Number: 313-237-7464

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