The Lion King

We all know the drill: following Walt Disney's death, the Disney studio has made it their crusade to sanitize, trivialize, and commercialize well known folk and fairy tales to death, turning once profound exercises in psychological and emotional exploration into spoon-fed white bread and sugar pabulum that defines contemporary mainstream American culture. Given the financial success of this formula, there are a number of remarkable things about the stage production of The Lion King, which opened it's North American tour last week in Denver after five sold out, award-winning years on Broadway.

First, it is remarkable that the Disney organization hired Julie Taymor to create, direct, and costume this adaptation of a successful full length animation while turning it into a theatrical production. Second, it's remarkable that they gave Taymor free reign and a Disney-sized budget to do this. And third, it's remarkable what Julie Taymor did to transform this piece.

For picking Taymor in the first place, we can thank Tom Schumacher, head of Disney Theatricals. From the beginning, Schumacher, who wasn't originally receptive to the idea of staging The Lion King, thought that Taymor, a student of world theatre, was the only person who could pull it off. In addition to her deep appreciation and mastery of ancient theatrical techniques, including masking, puppetry, and silhouette, Taymor came to the project as a mature artist—willing to spend the time necessary to make the Disney folks comfortable with stretching the envelope.

In addition to the phenomenal staging and costuming, Taymor also insisted on bringing the South African composer Lebo M into the project. There were only five Elton John and Tim Rice songs in the film, so Taymor needed about 10 more songs for a musical, and Lebo M. did most of these. Much like what Lady Black Mambazo did for Paul Simon's Graceland album, Lebo M.'s work does to metamorphose The Lion King from a rock opera into world musical theatre.

From the opening a cappella strains of "Circle of Life," with giraffes, gazelles, lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, wildebeests, zebras, and birds greeting the rising African sun, to Simba's coronation, The Lion King offers a multitude of visual, auditory, and emotional gifts.

The magic begins with the medicine woman Rafiki's incantation—a warm, wide-eyed, engaging invitation from Fredi Walker-Browne. Alton Fitzgerald White's Mufasa exudes lionhearted power and intelligence, while Patrick Page wears Scar's snidely disingenuousness as a second skin.

The comic relief is provided by hyperbolic caricatures held over from the animated film: Jeffrey Binder's peripatetic Zazu, a dodo who has risen to the rank of Major Domo, but is closer to the King's fool, John Plumpis' sarcastic, but loyal Timon, the hyperactive meerkat, and Blake Hammond's slow-witted and loveable Pumbaa, the flatulent warthog.

Finally, Josh Tower and Kissy Simmons brim with chemistry as Simba and Nala.

Disney's The Lion King runs through June 23rd. For information on any remaining tickets, call 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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