Sunday, August 05, 2007

Lion King

Spectacular ‘LION KING’ roars into State Theatre

When it was proposed that the film ‘THE LION KING’ be transformed into a stage musical, there were many nay-sayers. How could animated animals be successfully portrayed by real people? How could the stage include such vast and sweeping elements as the rolling African savannah and the plot-necessary wildebeest stampede?

Enter Julie Taymor. She not only conceived the concept for the production, but directed the show, devised the costumes, co-designed the masks and puppets, and wrote additional lyrics to supplement those used in the Disney movie. The result of her creative genius is a spectacular visual and artistic production.

The stage version opened in New York October 1997. It was an instant success, going on to win Tonys for Best Musical, Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design, Best Choreography (Garth Fagan) and Best Direction of a Musical (Julie Taymor).

The story line centers on the animal kingdom of the African veldt. Simba, a young lion prince avenges his father's murder by his treacherous uncle. In the process he ventures into the jungle, discovers new and eccentric friends, finds his true love, and discovers his destiny. The message? “You can run from your past, or learn from it.”

One of the concerns of attending a touring show, especially of a production that has already been around in its original traveling version, is that there will be a watering down of theatrical elements. Fear not. The production appearing on the State Theatre stage is every bit as vibrant as the Broadway production. The sets, the costumes, the masks, the special effects, the musical sounds, the acting talent---they are all on our local stage.

Appearing on that stage are over 200 puppets; 25 kinds of animals, birds, fish and insects; 12 bird kites; 18-foot giraffes; 39 hyenas; 52 wildebeests and a 13 -foot elephant. It takes two 48-foot semi-trailers to transport the production’s puppets from city to city. There are 143 people directly involved in each production, including 53 cast members, 21 musicians, 17 wardrobe people, 5 hair/makeup artists, 3 puppet craftsmen, 13 carpenters, 10 electricians and 3 sound people.

Right from the parade of the animals at the beginning of the show when the human/puppets traverse down the aisles, it is apparent that this is an audience pleasing epic. The applause and “ohs” and “ahs” started immediately and continued throughout the show, climaxing in a screaming ovation as the curtain fell.

Those familiar with the movie version, which has music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, will be reacquainted with such songs as: “The Circle of Life,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata.” Added are pieces from “The Rhythm of the Pride Lands,” a recording inspired by the film, which sets a sound and mood of South Africa.

There are no well known names in the cast, but each performer is excellent. No second rate, “making their acting debut” performers here, which is often the case in some touring shows.

Since my “kid’s point of view” assistants, grandsons Alex and Noah Berko, are at sleep away camp, I was curious about how children were reacting to the show. Between the dark moments, the scary hyenas, the death of the lion king and the explosions, I was wondering how little ones were affected. Most parents of those four and above indicated the kids were thrilled, except for the fact that “it wasn’t like the movie.” Cries of terror during certain scenes indicated that some of the littler ones weren’t faring as well. Anyone planning on taking young children should be aware that the show is long and that there are some scary parts. Watching an animated character die on television is not the same as seeing a real person expire or get attacked so it is essential to evaluate the emotional sensitivities of your child.

Capsule judgment: If you are going to see ‘THE LION KING’ in its full glory, you need to get to the State Theatre and see this, the final official touring production. Though local theatres may attempt to stage the script, it will be nearly impossible to reproduce the spectacle elements!