April 1, 2010

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Regal ‘Lion King’ still dominates theatrical jungle

Birds soar. Antelope leap. Elephants galumph. Giraffes plod. Hyenas menace. Zebras romp. Wildebeest stampede. Lions roar.

All that, and more, makes up Julie Taymor’s extraordinary production of Walt Disney’s “The Lion King” that 13 years ago took Broadway by storm. It is, in so many ways, a marvel. Its pure creativity is breathtaking. Taymor directed the piece. She also designed the stunning and colorful costumes and, with Michael Curry, the puppets that create, with their human handlers, the world of the African jungle in a way that leaves you breathless. Richard Hudson’s gorgeous set and Donald Holder’s hot lighting ably abet Taymor’s creations.

The story about the young lion cub whose father, Mufasa, is king of Pride Rock, is simple and predictable. In spite of that, it effectively deals with power, love, envy and responsibility in ways that are unexpectedly moving.

Taymor’s production, however, is what this show is all about, and it is a thing of beauty. It’s also one of the most physically demanding shows ever for its cast. It demands they move in ways humans probably shouldn’t; singing, dancing and manipulating their puppets (these are hand puppets, they’re huge, intricate and amazing), all at the same time.

The cast that appears at the Academy of Music through April 24 is amazing. The athleticism, acting ability, vocal quality and physical beauty of the company are extraordinary.

As the evil Scar — the lion whose envy of his brother, the king, leads him to kill Mufasa and send Simba, Mufasa’s son and heir, into the wilderness — Brent Harris is perfection. Dionne Randolph is a physically impressive if somewhat wooden Mufasa.

Elijah Johnson is terrific as the young Simba (he shares the role with Jerome Stephens Jr.), as is Jamariana Tribble as his young friend Nala. Ntomb’Khona Dlamini is a wise and wonderful Rafiki. André Jackson is a fine and ultimately regal grown up Simba.

Good comic relief is delivered by Tony Freeman as Zazu, the king’s principal servant; Tyler Murree as Timon, the meerkat; and Ben Lipitz as the gaseous warthog Pumbaa.

It’s remarkable theater from start to finish. If you want to know what genius looks like, take a look at Taymor’s design elements in “The Lion King.” A parental warning: even though this is Disney, there is much in it that might be scary or troubling for very young children. I’d say eight would be about the right age for this. I’ve seen younger kids visibly and audibly upset by some of the show, which is not good for them or for those sitting near them.

For tickets to “The Lion King,” playing through April 24 at the Academy of Music, call 215-893-1999 or visit


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