Since the first time was the charm — “The Lion King” played 14 weeks to packed houses at the Hippodrome Theatre on its initial visit in 2005 — what to make of the third time for this epic Disney musical in Baltimore? A lot, as it turns out.
Although aimed at kids in many ways, the piece, with book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, goes far beyond that. There’s a genuine kick to the drama (very loosely inspired by “Hamlet”), and pretty good mileage to the humor, right down to the groaner puns (“You got your lions crossed”).
Those with keen memories may spot assorted scenic modifications to the current staging, made to allow the show to play smaller venues than in the past, but it all still looks impressive. There are more than enough visual attractions to grab newcomers to “The Lion King,” as well as to re-engage those already in the know.
Those ingenious costume designs of the production’s original director, Julie Taymor, who incorporated masks and puppetry in ground-breaking fashion, never grow old.
There will always be something magical and meaningful about a harmonious, hopeful convergence of species in those designs — the way actors visibly meld into the mechanics of graceful giraffes or nimble elephants parading across the stage, or how, by the simplest of means, a performer can help vibrant fireflies animate a scene.
Richard Hudson’s scenery, lit by Donald Holder, continues to deliver delights, too. The way in Act 2 that the spirit of the goodly Mufasa, murdered king of the lions, appears in the clouds to rouse his wet-behind-the-mane son, Simba, is just one example.
Speaking of those pivotal characters, this cast features much stronger performers than “The Lion King” had when it made its second stop at the Hippodrome six years ago for a month-long run (the same length as the current stint).
As Mufasa, Gerald Ramsey conveys the regal and the down-to-earth with equal flair. He is especially effective during those moments when he explains to Simba the need to grasp and respect the balance of nature, and imparts the crucial lesson that anchors this parable-like tale: There is more to being king than getting what you want.
With his vibrant acting and singing, Gerald Caesar makes a persuasive, engaging Simba. He is well matched by Nia Holloway as Nala, the friend (and love interest) who helps Simba find his inner roar. (A fine set of child actors alternate performances as Young Simba and Young Nala.)
In the time-honored tradition, the villain nearly steals the show. That’s Mark Campbell, having a field day as Mufasa’s jealous brother, Scar, oozing fake charm and spewing venom to keen effect. Also vying for attention and succeeding is Greg Jackson as the dry-witted, helpful hornbill Zazu.
The tight rapport of Martina Sykes, Keith Bennett and Robbie Swift as three wise-cracking, more-or-less threatening hyenas pays off nicely.
The sturdy supporting cast includes still-dynamic, still-endearing veterans from the show’s 2011 visit — Nick Cordileone (Timon), Ben Lipitz (Pumbaa), and Buyi Zama (Rafiki), whose striking voice unleashes the emotional truths at the heart of “The Lion King.” Aside from some choreographic steps that could use honing, the rest of the ensemble does sturdy work.
Repeated exposure does drive home some of the musical’s weak spots. The flow of the action isn’t exactly seamless, for example; way too often, actors walk out, find their spot, deliver a burst of dialogue and/or a song, then depart to make way for the next bit. And the score (by Elton John, Tim Rice, Lebo M and others) sounds more dutiful than inspired at times.
Still, the many assets carry the day. And, with the notion of elephant hunting trophies back in the news, the whole value system underlying “The Lion King” — the belief in a natural beauty, order and purpose worth protecting — shines through with an extra brightness.