Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi. Music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice. Directed by Julie Taymor. A Walt Disney Company production, presented by Broadway Across Canada. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, July 15. Continues until August 8
The design is the star of The Lion King. That’s both a good and a bad thing.
Some sequences are heart-stoppingly beautiful. In the opening of this story about a young lion named Simba, the savannah awakes. A tangerine sun rises as South African rhythms reverberate through the theatre, shaking your bones, and animals parade down the aisles. Actors dressed in spectacular costumes—hippos, birds, elephants—ascend the stage, where they meet giraffes (actors on four stilts), cheetahs, and more. It’s enough to make you weep.
Director Julie Taymor designed the costumes and she codesigned the masks and puppets with Michael Curry. Many of these elements are stunners as well. A wheeled, geared machine supports sculptures of antelopes that appear to leap in complicated groupings as it moves along.
Taymor’s emphasis on design sometimes overwhelms the story, however. The 1994 animated film, upon which this 1997 stage musical is based, is full of boisterous, unpretentious action. Here, beautiful fabrics and shapes become the substitutes.
Most importantly, stripped of the freewheeling action of the movie, the generic nature of the relationship between Simba and his father, Mufasa, becomes apparent. In the film, there’s relaxed warmth between these characters; in Taymor’s vision, Mufasa is so two-dimensionally noble that it grates when he delivers lessons about things like the inevitability of death.
When Simba’s evil uncle Scar manipulates the young cub into running away from home, the outcast Simba picks up a couple of comic sidekicks: the warthog Pumbaa and the meerkat Timon. With the arrival of these two, the musical takes a sharp—and welcome—turn toward the goofy. And all of a sudden, the show is about surprising relationships and personalities. Throughout most of Act 1, the only surprising personality belongs to Scar, who was sinuously played on opening night by standby Nicholas Carriere. Ben Lipitz is in excellent, flatulent form as Pumbaa, and Nick Cordileone delivers one of the funniest performances of the evening as the silly, slightly hysterical Timon.
Most of the music by the central composers, Elton John and Tim Rice, is forgettable pop. But the stage version of The Lion King also borrows songs from the album, The Rhythm of the Pride Lands, which features work by South African songwriter Lebo M, among others. This more authentically African material is thrilling, especially when it’s sung by Brenda Mhlongo, who plays the baboon narrator Rafiki.
In terms of spectacle, Taymor’s Lion King is a groundbreaking work of art, but Taymor is sometimes more of a visual artist than a compelling storyteller.