By Jordan Wright (Photo/Joan Marcus)
“Disney’s The Lion King” roars onto the stage with a procession of African wildlife in its opening number “Circle of Life.”
Director Julie Taymor, who also serves as costume designer as well as mask and puppet co-designer with Michael Ward, sends her exquisitely conceived creatures — giraffes borne on stilts, a massive elephant and whirling birds held aloft on bamboo poles — streaming down the aisles of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ three-tiered opera house in a fantastical pageant of African wildlife. Taymor, a student of both Bunraku, the Japanese art of puppetry in which the manipulators do not hide themselves, and wayan kulit, the art of shadow puppetry, magnificently incorporates the two styles into this spectacular production.
It is expected by now (the animated film version premiered in 1994, then in 1998 the stage version garnered six Tony Awards) that you are familiar with the story of Simba, the young lion; King Mufasa, his kindly father; Scar, the evil uncle; Rafiki, the baboon shaman and Zazu, the red-billed hornbill. They all inhabit Simba’s world, along with the strong-willed Nala, Simba’s childhood friend; Pumbaa, the gassy warthog and Timon, the wisecracking meerkat.
But these familiar faces are not the only characters we meet. There are hordes of wildebeests that stampede onto the stage, as well as lurking, laughing hyenas who are lampooned by Pumbaa and Timon in the famous song “Hakuna Matata,” meaning “no worries” in Swahili.
The score developed by lyricist Tim Rice and composer Elton John is beyond fabulous. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is one of John’s biggest hits. But it was Hans Zimmer who won an Oscar, two Grammys and a Golden Globe for the original film score and Soweto émigré Lebo M., known as the “voice and spirit of ‘The Lion King,’” who contributed the gloriously rich African rhythms and melodies.
Among the most memorable roles is Simba, played by the adorable Jelani Remy, who stalks and pounces his way into your heart. “I hate public pools,” he jokes after a dangerous dunk in the river.
Then there is L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa, whose superlative voice cradles the emotions in “They Live in You” when he explains to Simba how his ancestors reside in the stars. And don’t miss Tshidi Manye as the wise Rafiki, whose evocative South African voice burns brightly in “Circle of Life” and “He Lives in You.”
Taymor’s costumes, using the vivid colors of tribal kente cloth, juxtaposes set designer Richard Hudson’s grassy savannas and cerulean skies. In desert scenes, Taymor employs the earthy shades of patterned Malian mud cloth to accentuate Hudson’s parched, earth-colored sets.
“The Lion King” is a lavish feast for the eyes and a paradise of music for the ears. I’d gladly swing from a baobab tree limb to claim it as one of my favorite musicals of all time.