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Hakuna Matata

by B.A. Nilsson on March 10, 2011

The Lion King
DIRECTED BY JULIE TAYMOR PROCTORS, THROUGH MARCH 20

Stage spectacle has become a maelstrom of lights and props, loud music and gimmicks, but the most compelling entertainment still needs humans—human figures and voices and conflicts. Which is why the mask-and-puppet imagery of The Lion King, laid upon a cast of vigorous, incredibly talented actors, captivates the audience strongly enough to have made this one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals (more than 13 years and going strong).

Now at Proctors for a monthlong visit, the Broadway-sized tour of the show has had advance sales close to capacity and is bringing in theatergoers from as far away as Maine. You could sense the excitement as the opening-night crowd of nearly 3,000 took their seats. And they were more than satisfied by the show.

The side balconies of box seats that flank the proscenium were filled with colorful arrays of African drums. The music began with African harmonies, a chant that swelled into the opening number, “Circle of Life.” But where the old-time opening number would waste no time in filling the stage with leggy chorines, director Julie Taymor demonstrated her skill by showing restraint, introducing the cleverly designed animal puppets and their human manipulators slowly, allowing a beautiful stage picture to evolve and change, each segment topping the last.

Tall giraffes glide across the stage, at first not recognizable as limber actors walking with stilts on their hands and feet. A surge of panthers appears, their leaps controlled by cogs geared by a wheeled contraption that is itself a joy to see.

Choreographer Garth Fagan has the dancers working the stage and theater aisles with movement that’s joyous and, when appropriate, heartbreaking, as in Act 2’s “Endless Night.”

There’s often a cloying anthropomorphism to Disney-animated animals, a quality delightfully absent from the masks and other facial contraptions. And in all cases, there’s a human actor visible, manipulating the animal and giving it motion. The melding of humans and masks is the brilliant stylistic soul this show.

The substance, of course, is a slight reimagining of the original cartoon, whose deficiencies of dialogue and song are even more apparent in a theatrical setting. The score has a core of five songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, which tend to be anthemic numbers featuring short, repeated phrases. This formula works quite well in the case of the catchy Act 1 closer “Hakuna Matata,” but remains dramatically ineffective otherwise. None of the characters are given an “I feel” type of song—they’re all of the declamatory “I did” or “I will” variety.

The African-styled numbers by Lebo M, typically in collaboration with Hans Zimmer and Mark Mancina, give the story whatever depth it has, and culminate in the haunting “Shadowland,” sung on opening night by Maurica Roland in the role of Nala.

The cast was uniformly superb, featuring such outstanding actors as J. Anthony Crane as Scar, Brenda Mhlongo as Rafiki, Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz as Timon and Pumbaa, Dionne Randolph as Mufasa and Tony Freeman as the wisecracking Zazu.

Dialogue is the clunkiest aspect of the show, with any number of scenes performed in front of a curtain to facilitate a scene change, known in vaudeville as “in one” and with jokes that seemed to date back that far. But there’s an aspect to this story that even predates vaudeville, harkening back to minstrelsy.

As Joseph Campbell has pointed out, every culture needs its myths. And if we’re not in control of the stories we tell, older, culturally entrenched stories will take over.

This is never more true than in the case of Disney, for many years promoting a male-dominated society in which strong women were an emasculating enemy. But a subtle shift has taken place recently, and The Lion King is an example of the intellectual as enemy.

Pride Rock is no more than an antebellum plantation where happy workers gambol and the Master, a figure of brute force, is threatened and then overthrown by a devious act of the Intellectual, under whose dominion the natives will have to think and fend for themselves.

Fortunately, a two-dimensional savior is at hand. Although he lacks the brains to make an intelligent decision, he eventually is motivated by anger to throw the Intellectual to the ravening hyenas, drawn as the least intelligent of all the denizens. The old oligarchy is restored and the workers are happy again. Keep in line, is the Disney lesson. Don’t question your masters.

With that in mind, The Lion King remains an otherwise brilliantly conceived show that I’m sure will bring people to Proctors who may never have enjoyed that most compelling of all art forms, live theater. Come see the show. Then come back for other offerings.

The Lion King (Original Broadway Cast Recording) (Special 2-Disc Edition)