By Mike Giuliano
3:55 PM EST, December 13, 2011
"The Lion King" still roars. This 1997 Broadway musical is still running in New York. A touring version was a box office smash during a 14-week run at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre in 2005 and now the musical has returned for a month-long stay.
Judging from all of the smiling children at a recent performance, this show is a wonderful family activity for the holiday season. The kids weren't the only ones smiling, laughing and pointing, because "The Lion King" knows how to please a crowd.
Although the songs by composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice include some memorable moments, the show generally makes a greater impression on the eye than on the ear. Credit for the visual splendor goes to director Julie Taymor, who also designed the costumes and collaborated with Michael Curry on the masks and puppets.
Presented with the daunting task of trying to find stage equivalents for the animated magic in the 1994 Disney film, Taymor made the savvy decision not to mask the obvious fact that the African animal characters are brought to life by human actors on stage.
This theatrical fact is loudly announced in the opening number, "Circle of Life," in which the performers parade down the aisles and then claim the stage as their own. You plainly see the actors supporting the schematically constructed elephants that majestically march down the aisles.
The birds flying overhead are set in motion by people holding lofty poles; indeed, when one of the birds accidentally got snagged by the overhead balcony, the guy holding that pole earned a round of applause for finding a way to free it without injury to the puppet. And there are performers on stilts that facilitate their angular, forward motion as long-limbed giraffes.
One of the most ingenious design decisions was to create animal masks that do not cover the performers' faces, but instead hover just above their heads. This presents us with both the animals' fixed expressions and the more mobile human faces emulating those expressions.
The distinctive look of "The Lion King" is further enhanced by Donald Holder's lighting design, which bathes Richard Hudson's spare scenic designs in environmentally evocative splashes of pure color. You don't doubt that the sun is shining when yellow light suffuses everything in sight.
As for the story, adult viewers will note that it's a thematically blunt tale about a young male lion, Simba (Niles Fitch, alternating with Zavion J. Hill), that mourns the death of his lion king father, Mufasa (Dionne Randolph), and also contends with Mufasa's villainous brother, Scar (J. Anthony Crane). Young Simba also takes a friendly interest in a young female lion, Nala (Kailah McFadden, alternating with Sade Phillip-Demorcy).
After spending years growing up on his own, the now-adult Simba (Jelani Remy) returns home to claim his throne. This means jousting with his nasty Uncle Scar, and also taking some time out for a courtship with the now-adult Nala (Syndee Winters).
The plot and accompanying songs blatantly make thematic points about growing up and taking responsibility. Parents will appreciate having their little ones educated in such an entertaining fashion.
Although only J. Anthony Crane's hilariously mean performance as Scar qualifies as a standout performance among the principal roles, this is a vocally capable cast.
What really sparks this production are some of the lively supporting performances. The rough-mannered warthog, Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz); street-talking meerkat, Timon (Nick Cordileone); and wisecracking hornbilled bird, Zazu (Mark David Kaplan), are all so, er, animated that they're like old-fashioned vaudeville performers who live to make you laugh.
Primates who are still in primary school are the prime audience for this show, but humans of all ages will have a good time. Just don't shriek like a hyena.
"The Lion King" continues through Jan. 8 at the Hippodrome Theatre, at 12 N. Eutaw St., in Baltimore. Tickets are $50-$135. Call 410-547-7328 or go to http://www.Ticketmaster.com.
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