Review: ‘The Lion King’ maintains magic 15 years later

One of my favorite moments of Disney’s “The Lion King” didn’t even happen on the Orpheum Theatre stage. To be sure, there were many wonderful moments that took place – the opening of Acts I and II come to the forefront. But this moment comes with the joy of sitting in a dark room with hundreds of strangers, taking in a piece of beautiful art.

It happened in the seat directly in front of me. And as the opening scene unfolded, a woman looked around and instantly became a joyous child, clapping and cheering as the play proceeded beyond the fourth wall. And in the most touching moment of all, this woman spent a good portion of the next scene wiping tears from the fruitful river of her eyes.

“The Lion King,” based on, among other things, William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” has that effect on people. The show that basically created a genre, putting director Julie Taymor on the map, has seen some revamping from the original Broadway production that opened in 1997. And while I enjoyed some moments from that particular production that are now missing (the longer orchestrations of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” come to mind), the show features production values that are completely off the charts.

To review: The young Simba the lion is born to King Mufasa (A dominant Dionne Randolph) and Queen Sarabi (Tryphena Wade). Since Simba is the heir to the throne, it is critical that he learn what it means to be a leader.

It is Mufasa’s evil brother Scar (A smoothly villainous Derek Smith), whose hunger for power leads to devastating consequences for the animals and the earth, that forces Simba (a handsome, visceral Jelani Remy) into his most important decision – to be his father’s son, return home and save the people of the Pride Lands.

What truly endures with this latest incarnation of the show is Taymor’s vision, which worked in perfect harmony with Elton John and Tim Rice’s orchestration and lyrics. The simple fact is Taymor sees color and light the way mere mortals just don’t. Taymor creates a unique and brilliant color palate on the stage, also seen in her films such as “Across the Universe” and “Frida.” Compare for a second the world that Mufasa rules over with Scar’s. The animals that inhabit his land move through space with a swagger in their gait, a world with a plethora of colors and light. And yet, when Scar and his hyenas take over, colors disappear, and the animals push through space as if they are crossing heavy brush.

To further illustrate, as Rafiki (a joyous turn by Buyi Zama) the mandrill starts the show by calling back the animals to Pride Rock, what transpires in those opening moments of the show create the illusion of a larger collection of giraffes, birds and cheetahs, among others. And in the beginning of Act II, while the singers showcase a joyous and prideful “One by One” with beautiful colors, bird kites and a bright Brechtian sun, the audience is further moved by the regality of the African dialect of Swahili.

Where “Lion King”really takes it up another notch in the artistry department is in its masks and puppetry. They are, quite simply, breathtaking. There is power and grace in Mufasa’s mask, sinister shadiness in Scar’s, and pure beauty in the weeping lionesses

Nala (Syndee Winters, L) and Simba (Jelani Remy)see their lifelong friendship grow into love in Disney’s “The Lion King,” playing in San Francisco through Jan. 13th. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

. There is also amazing puppetry influences, including the wondrous hyenas and Balinese shadows. It is what made the show the toughest ticket to get in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s. It also, as previously stated, created its own genre, and was not a simple translation of the cartoon.

Other performances and numbers which stood out include Timon (The sharp Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (A lovingly oafish Ben Lipitz) in the classic “Hakuna Matata,” with a joyous surprise towards the end of the song. Syndee Winters’ Nala is strong and graceful, bringing such honor and dignity to her role. And the booming voice of Randolph sharpened the jaw-dropping artistic marvel “He Lives in You.” The music, directed and conducted by Rick Snyder, is chock-full of beautiful African rhythms that are further textured by percussionists Stefan Monssen and Reuven Weizberg.

On the downside, even though they smartly cut the banal number “The Morning Report,” as well as about 10 total minutes from the early runs of the show, it still runs a bit long at about two hours and 40 minutes. And though it is based on the 1994 cartoon of the same name, this show really feels that it is targeting a more mature audience. There is most certainly enough stuff to keep the kids happy, considering I heard more than a few screech with delight at the comic broadness of Timon and Pumbaa. But surely adults will find more appreciation for certain arcs in the storytelling.

There is something so powerful about experiencing a moment while watching a play that you will most likely never get back. We move through space daily, and no two memories are ever the same. Enjoying a moment with someone I’ve never met or spoken to is what makes the theatrical experience so unique. Shows like “The Lion King” prove that theatre is truly magical.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Shorenstein Hayes Nederlander of San Francisco present Disney’s “The Lion King”
Music and Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice
Directed by Julie Taymor
The word: A beautiful color palate on the Orpheum stage is what stands out in this wonderful production.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
The Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market Street (at 8th) San Francisco, CA 94102.
Through Jan. 13th
Tickets range from $35 to $190
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

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