note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
From the moment baboon shaman Rafiki (Tshide Manye) sounds her shrill, opening cry at the Boston Opera House, heralding the start of “The Lion King’s” triumphant return to our city, the air hangs heavy with anticipation. Theatergoers bolt upright, at attention. Drummers in the upper box seats, above the left- and right-hand sides of the stage, pound out pulsating rhythms, quickening theatergoers’ collective heartbeat. As the stage explodes with a brilliant orange, sun-kissed sky, and Rafiki continues her clarion call to the savanna and lions‘ pridelands, the magnificent parade of elegantly-costumed personified creatures - huge elephants, giraffes, birds, humans, and more - invade the aisles. They’re a spectacular parade, swaying and strolling to the beat, while approaching the stage.
And for the next 2-3/4 hours, theatergoers, young and old, become enchanted in this beautiful tale of the circle of life. Trend-setting director-costume designer Julie Taymor, with her gorgeous costumes, splendid puppets and masks created with Michael Curry, continues to astound and overwhelm, with their eye-popping splendor, set against Donald Holder’s brilliant spectrum of colors and Steve Canyon Kennedy’s sounds of the savanna and thundering stampede of wildebeest.
Music Director Rick Snyder and his marvelous musicians thrill the audience with their stirring renditions of Elton John and Tim Rice’s memorable songs from the original score, especially “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “Circle of Life,” and the catchy child-pleasing “Hakuna Matata”. And choral director Lebo M, originally from Soweto and known as the voice and spirit of “The Lion King,” captures the African soul with his additional music, lyrics, vocal score, and vocal arrangements, which won him a Grammy and a Tony. There also are additional songs by Taymor, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Hans Zimmer, but none please more than the original score.
There’s an underlying emphasis in this production to downplay the violent dog-eat-dog existence in the wild, by showing cameo silhouettes, distant puppetry, or subtle, physical scenes depicting a lioness group kill, for instance.
But we are in the jungle, in set designer Richard Hudson’s mighty Pridelands, the hyenas’ den, the elephant graveyard, open savanna, and peaceful grasslands, where danger lurks. Starlit skies and an unrippled pool add moments of reflection, serenity, and prophesy, a stark contrast to the gray, gloomy devastation of the Pridelands later and the hyenas’ cavelike den.
Human grasslands and vines sway, as a bicycled herd of antelopes prance and jump across the stage. Choreographer Garth Fagan’s extraordinary moves simulate lions‘ stalking, preying, their sleek, sinewy movements marvelously re-enacted by this fabulous cast.
Portraying Mufasa, the lion king, L. Steven Taylor is regal, his voice rich and melodic, his movements proud and powerful, while Patrick R. Brown as his evil, conniving, fratricidal brother, Scar, sneakily skulks around, making no bones about his plot to overtake and murder Mufasa and Simba, his headstrong little nephew (talented Jordan A.Hall), rightful heir to the throne. The bold cub delightfully frolics and spars with his girl peer, Nala, (Nya Skye Odoms).
After Scar causes Mufasa’s death and convinces the young cub that he killed his father and must flee the Pridelands, Simba encounters two characters who lighten his life and the play with their humorous antics. Nick Cordileone as Timon, the meerkat, and Ben Lipitz as flatulent warthog, Pumbaa, keep the small set giggling.
Portraying teen-age Simba and Nala, who are reunited and return to the Pridelands to restore and lead their homeland, Jelani Remy and Nia Halloway are poetry in motion.
From “The Lion King’s” Broadway premiere in November 1997 to its groundbreaking global success since then, including the original award-winning animated film, this musical continues to enchant and mesmerize international audiences with its splendor, and its universal messages. The circle of life comes full circle, embracing and enveloping us inside, and we feel the love it emanates.
BOX INFO: Multi-award winning spectacular, two-act, 2-3/4-hour Disney musical, appearing at the Boston Opera House (539 Washington St., Boston), through Oct. 12, Performances: Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2,8 p.m.; Sunday, 1,6:30 p.m., and Oct. 9, at 1 p.m. Tickets start at $33. For tickets and more information, call Ticketmaster at 866-870-2717, or visit www.BroadwayInBoston.com. Check for member, group tickets.