'Lion King': a wonderful rumble in the jungle


This wasn't in the cartoon," the character of an impudent bird says early in The Lion King.

The visual feast of a musical that has settled in for a summer-long run at the Hippodrome Theatre has lots and lots of stuff that wasn't in Disney's 1994 animated feature.

There are puppets and masks and new songs (oh, my!). And they're a far cry from Disney theme-park-style puppetry.

Unlike Disney's first venture on Broadway, Beauty and the Beast, which basically reproduced the look of the cartoon, the company took a different tack for The Lion King. This time Disney hired Julie Taymor, an avant-garde director with an extensive background in Asian and Eastern European theater. Taymor - whose first professional job in this country was at Center Stage - is also an experienced Shakespeare director, and she brings all of her multifaceted influences to bear in the spellbindingly inventive Lion King.

The splendor begins in the opening "Circle of Life" scene, when a parade of animals marches down the aisles and onto the stage. There are women with hats sprouting white plumed birds, and zebras that are half-human, and a simply superb elephant with an actor in each of its four legs.

None of the human components of these fabulous creatures is disguised, and that's a large part of the genius behind Taymor and co-designer Michael Curry's masks and puppets. Taymor refers to her approach as "duality." The way it works is that the audience sees both the animal and the actor playing the animal. The lions, for example, wear masks on top of their heads, allowing the audience to see the animal's defining characteristic on the mask and its human traits in the performer's facial expressions.

Taymor's Shakespeare background also comes in handy. That's because The Lion King - which has a book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi - is loosely based on Hamlet. Like the great Shakespearean tragedy, The Lion King is about a king's son - in this case, a lion cub called Simba (the children's roles are double cast, but on opening night, Lendsay O'Neil Brown was an adorably spunky, cartwheeling Simba). Also like Hamlet, the throne is usurped by a scheming uncle - in this case, a lion named Scar, played with marvelous malevolence by Dan Donohue as a cross between Iago and Captain Hook.

There are some notable plot differences - both from the Shakespeare tale and from the animated Lion King. Unlike Hamlet, Simba believes he caused the death of his father (majestic Thomas Corey Robinson).

Fleeing the kingdom in shame, Simba pairs up with a couple of comic sidekicks - no, not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but a warthog named Pumbaa and a meerkat named Timon. These two look the most disappointingly close to their movie counterparts. But there's enough good will in the happy-go-lucky performances of Ben Lipitz and John Plumpis to let you overlook this.

The primary storytelling difference from the movie is the heightened female presence. This is evident from the first character we see. Rafiki, the shaman baboon/narrator, is played by a woman, South African native Phindile, who augments Rafiki's wisdom with jollity. In addition, there's a new plot line involving Simba's childhood playmate, Nala, who as a young woman (proud, graceful Adrienne Muller) is unwillingly wooed by Scar.

Other major changes in the stage show include the enhancement of Elton John and Tim Rice's score, most obviously with a more authentic African sound (created in large part by South African songwriter Lebo M), and the inclusion of Garth Fagan's wide-ranging choreography, which, at one point, even includes aerial ballet.

All of these additions and alterations transform the 75-minute cartoon into a 2 1/2 -hour musical. The pace slows unexpectedly in the middle of the second act, and well before that some plot details get lost in the spectacle; this is especially true in the pivotal stampede scene in the first act.

But all in all, this immense touring production is the near equivalent of its Broadway forebear. A few other performances deserve particular mention - the jaunty, music-hall-flavored depiction of Zazu, the major-domo hornbill, by Mark Cameron Pow, and the demented depictions of the three slobbering hyenas (Scar's henchmen) by Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Wayne Pyle and James Brown-Orleans (a graduate of the University of Maryland Baltimore County).

To quote from one of the show's signature songs, "Hakuna matata ... means no worries." And this gleaming production should have no worries sustaining its record-length run at the Hippodrome.

The Lion King

Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 6:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 4

Tickets: $26.50-$76.50

Call: 410-547-SEAT

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