Source: St. Paul Pioneer Press, Aug. 1, 1997
Author: Chris Hewitt, Staff Writer

Opening makes 'The Lion King' the mane event

      I would pay to see the Broadway-bound "The Lion King" again, even if I could only stay the first five minutes. The opening number, "The Circle of Life," is among the most spine-tingling, goosebump-raising, overwhelmingly beautiful curtain-raisers in the history of Broadway musical theater.

      It begins as the movie begins, with a single, keening voice (Tsidii Le Loka), singing about the balance of nature on the African savannah. Gradually, Le Loka is joined by dozens of animal puppets - antelopes leaping on the arms of graceful dancers, cheetahs operated with an eerie precision by puppeteers, statuesque giraffes that are actually men on four stilts, breathtaking, lighter-than-air birds, and a lumbering elephant with an actor in each of its four legs. (That's not giving anything away - you can see the people operating the puppets, and that makes the effect even more amazing.)

      Sometimes critics fret that their enthusiasm will raise expectations too high, but "The Circle of Life" is so gorgeous and moving that it cannot be overpraised.

      It also provides the key to "The Lion King's" problems. The scene is moving not because it involves us in the characters - at that point, we haven't met any of them - but because of the volume of the imagination and talent on display. There are several other visually thrilling scenes in "The Lion King" and some fine performances, but it feels choppy and the narrative momentum sometimes gets lost in the effects (it doesn't help that the acting styles vary from Shakespearian to Bob Hopean).

      Director Julie Taymor, who designed the costumes and - with Michael Curry, the astonishing puppets - draws inspiration from Walt Disney's film, "The Lion King." All the movie songs are here, as is the story of a curious lion, Simba, whose uncle, Scar, convinces him that he's responsible for his father's death. So Simba runs away, makes friends with some wacky animal vaudevillians and grapples with the debt he owes to the community he deserted.

      New to the stage version are several songs, including "They Live in You," a jubilant, gospel-tinged ballad that is reprised in an extraordinary display of puppet magic. I also like the teen-aged Simba's (Jason Raize) soaring "Endless Night" and his girlfriend Nala's (Heather Headly) passionate "Shadowlands."

      But the remainder of the new songs are superfluous. "The Madness of King Scar" is a dull number, sung by an uninspired Scar (John Vickery). Actually, the problem is that Vickery's performance is inspired - by Jeremy Irons' stellar work in the animated film. (Why, for instance, does Vickery use a British accent, unlike the other lions? Because Irons did. Why does he say, "You have no idea?" Because, in the original, it was an in-joke line borrowed from Irons' role in "Reversal of Fortune"). Vickery is also saddled with the one bad costume in the show - fussy and frittery, it makes him look like The African Drag Queen.

      "The Madness of King Scar" comes almost two hours into "The Lion King," and time is an issue in the 160-minute show, although pacing has improved tenfold since I saw it two weeks ago. Still, it's hard to believe that four - count 'em - four dancing grass numbers lasted this far into the show's development (there are no human charaters here, but there's a heckuva lot of foliage). Another bizzaro dance moment: a hyena attack is interrupted for a disco hoedown. One minute, we're in the middle of a bloodbath, the next minute we've been transported to a hyena gay bar, complete with glistening torsos and clingy tights.

      Between unnecessary dance bits, some performers shine. Tops on my list is Lana Gordon's wordless, astonishingly detailed performance as a cheetah. Max Casella (Timon) and Tom Alan Robbins (Pumbaa) will remind you of their movie forbears, but it's a welcome reminder. And Samuel E. Wright brings authority and dignity to Simba's father, Mufasa. As the cynical bird, Zazu, hammy Geoff Hoyle needs to learn that more is less.

      Occasionally overblown, a bit overlong and - what with all the dancing grass - way overgrown, "The Lion King" would benefit from learning the same lesson. But, even unpruned, it's a mighty entertaining show.

What: "The Lion King"
Where: Orpheum Theatre, Minneapolis
When: Through Aug. 31
Tickets: $65-$20; call (612) 989-5151
Capsule: Despite a few draggy moments and several pointless dance numbers, this "Lion" mostly roars.
*** (Ed: 3 stars)

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