The recently released “The Lion King” film – with its computer-generated herds of zebras, elephants and antelope, its virtual Serengeti and its turbocharged skyscapes – has been universally praised for its remarkable photorealism.
But while its state-of-the-art technology and $260 million production budget leave the audience awe-struck, the live-action stage production of “The Lion King” – on tour and, for the fourth time since 2003, at Playhouse Square – generates prolonged, heartfelt and well-earned “awws.”
This simple yet Shakespearean coming-of-age story, infused with hummable tunes by Elton John and Tim Rice, revolves around the lion cub Simba (Richard A. Phillips, Jr.), whose uncle Scar (Spencer Plachy) has claimed the throne of Pride Rock by killing his brother Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) and casting out his young nephew. Simba returns as an adult (Jared Dixon) to take back his homeland with the help of his childhood friend Nala (Nia Holloway), the meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and the warthog Pumbaa (played admirably in this performance by the standby William John Austin).
The story is told with such pageantry, imagination and scale on stage that the 1994 Disney-animated film and the current CGI treatment pale by comparison. As she did on Broadway, director Julie Taymor takes full advantage of the three-dimensionality of live performance and every theatrical tool at her disposal to fill the Key Bank State Theatre stage with artistry.
Ancient, multicultural forms of storytelling are employed, including the use of five indigenous African languages, Japanese bunraku and wayang kulit shadow puppetry, the primal, percussive rhythms and choral arrangements of African legend Lebo M, and explosive and wildly imaginative ensemble choreography by Garth Fagan. The clever use of scrims and dramatic lighting by designers Richard Hudson and Donald Holder are breathtaking.
And, of course, there’s Julie Taymor’s remarkable costuming. The anthropomorphized lions and evil hyenas from the films are actors wearing magnificent masks that rest atop their heads to signify their characters. Ensemble members don wardrobe that represents local flora and fauna. And the snarky bird Zazu (Greg Jackson) and the comic relief Timon and Pumbaa are stand-alone puppets with fully exposed puppeteers beside or inside them.
All this is handled with expert craftsmanship and brought to life by superb performances, including that of Buyi Zama as the mystical, Zulu-spouting baboon, Rafiki. And all of this is supported by a 10-piece orchestra under James Dodgson’s direction that does justice to the score, particularly the Oscar-winning "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" and "Circle of Life."
There is little doubt that the touring “The Lion King” seems more “Disney” than the newest cinematic incarnation. It is breezier, less tragic and more child-friendly, which has its pros and cons. And what was once innovative stagecraft now seems a bit time-worn – even hokey at times – in light of shows like “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Even the novelty of a pop musician writing music and lyrics for Broadway has been overshadowed by scores by Green Day for “American Idiot” and Sting for “The Last Ship.”
Still, the spectacle in this show will win you over. The remarkable artistry will transport you. And the live, high-energy and high-caliber performances will justify the high cost of admission.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio Society of Professional Journalists best critic.