The Lion King
By Jeffrey Kieviet
My Friend, Julie Taymor
At Delphine’s restaurant, across the street from the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, we’re having happy hour at the bar, waiting for the show to start, when a middle aged (or late-middle aged? Is there a term for that?) gentleman sits down and starts chatting up the bartenders. He seems like a local regular, all the guys know him, and they shoot the breeze for a minute, but a strange pattern begins to develop. Every female server that comes to the bar for drinks gets referred to this man for help with their acting/modeling/dancing career (everyone in Hollywood wants to be in the movies, otherwise you’d live anywhere else). As far as I can tell, he’s an agent or a manager or some bigwig and I’m expecting him to try to invite them over to his casting couch for a little “audition,” but aside from a little flamboyancy this man behaves with relative humility.
After a while the restaurant traffic begins to thin as most customers are doing the same thing we are, grabbing a quick dinner (and a drink or two [or three or four]) before checking out the lavish stage musical of the classic Disney cartoon, The Lion King. With no one left to talk to, the agent turns his attention to us, “you going to the show?” he asks. So we talk a little and he casually throws into the conversation, “yeah, my friend, Julie Taymor…” Julie Taymor is the director of aforementioned Lion King. She’s the one who tried to put Spider-Man on stage in the multi-million dollar flop Turn Off the Dark (currently trying to earn its money back on Broadway, despite dead bodies & broken bones), as well as the director of such films as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest & Titus. Of course the guy we’re talking to at the bar is best buds with the woman who created the critically acclaimed masterpiece we’re about to see.
I wish I could tell you he invited us back to his house for a crazy party or even a little casting couch action, but alas, nothing else happened and we went to see the show unmolested. Just like when I ran into Russell Brand before seeing Kid Cudi. This was just to set the scene for Hollywood. I don’t like being such a skeptic in my old age, but if that guy knows Julie Taymor, then I’m the queen of France. Bring me my scepter.
So this play has been out for many years and received high praise from all sides, mainly for the magnificent Costume, Mask, & Puppet design by the aforementioned Julie Taymor (with a little help from Michael Curry on the masks & puppets). In fact, I’d seen this show twice already, once in London, but this was Mags (mofoyo713)’s first time and it was nice to be with someone who got experience the spectacle with virgin eyes.
The Lion King kind of blows its load right off the bat for the “Circle of Life” number, with giant giraffes and elephants walking down the aisles, birds flying overhead, and a veritable kingdom of animals (or animal kingdom) gathering for the birth of this stuffed teddy bear that looks like a lion. The rest of the show is still fantastic and epic, but nothing ever reaches the magnitude of 30 puppets kneeling, bowing, and scraping on Pride Rock.
There were two different kinds of puppets, one where it was mostly the person so the costume just suggested what animal they were, almost like tribal natives with magnificent headpieces shaped like lions or make-up & a fur dress implying a baboon. The other type was a full body puppet, with the actor’s legs actually being the legs of the beast, and their head and/or hand poking out to add a little humanity. To go into too much detail would be wasted words since you truly need to see these creations in action to understand their beauty & creativity. And you still may not fully understand; I want to see an x-ray of the hyenas just to find out how the puppets work. I guess there was a 3rd type of puppet, and that’s just the classic hand puppet, like Zazu the dodo bird, who was puppeteered by a guy in a blue suit with fowl makeup who turned his body into an extension of the puppet, instead of the other way around. Timon is similarly just a puppet attached to a guy in a greenman suit, but it’s a man-sized meerkat whose arms and legs correspond to that of the actor. Anyone who can run around doing what these actors did and still perform words and songs earns my praise.
After all the years this show has been running, there does seem to be some small issues with longevity. I don’t know how long certain actors have been playing their parts, but a few performances felt a little phoned in. Scar, in particular, was lackluster. It may have just been that he was so desperate to avoid mimicking Jeremy Irons from the cartoon, but he didn’t make many strong choices and didn’t feel intimidating or scary. Mufasa also seemed tired and world-weary, but dying every night can’t be a walk in the park. Oh, spoilers! Sorry if you didn’t know about Mufasa. Don’t tell your kids. Speaking of, I know they’re only like 10 years old, but the actors playing Young Simba & Young Nala should be better if they’re going to be in a show like this. Where’s Haley Joel Osment when you need him?
A couple performances stood out among the rest as shining examples: Brown Lindiwe Mkhize as Rafiki, the mad baboon who had enough energy and excitement to make me feel like a kid again, and Rashada Dawan as Shenzi the Hyena, who found an original take on Whoopi Goldberg’s distinct voice.
The songs were great, with excellent conduction by Rick Snyder (I’m not sure who all I’m supposed to name in the show for all their hard work, the playbill is 30 pages long, full of people who helped to create this sprawling epic). As you may remember from my review of The Lion King SNES video game, the cartoon was a staple of my youth. It was great to sing along, at least quietly to myself, but I was surprised by how many original songs the play has, especially since I’d seen the show before. The best of these new songs are the ones that sound like tribal chants, “Nao Tse Tsa” & “Shadowland.”
At the end of the day, it’s still a great show. Make a night of it, buy a babysitter for the kids (or “rent” a babysitter? What’s the technical term?”), suit up and get there early so you can eat a nice dinner. Delphine’s has a great happy hour if you go on a week night. And if anyone wants to get together to try to build puppets, I think I’ve got some good ideas for a sequel show about shenanigans the hyenas get up to after the demise of Scar. Songs like “I Just Can’t Believe We Ate the King” & “Circle of Strife.” Now I just need to find someone to write the music.
To see more Theatre Reviews or other stuff by Jeffrey Kieviet, check out his Author Archive.