RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
The pageantry and experience of "Disney's The Lion King" are well worth the price of the tickets at $30 to $150 each.
"The Lion King" comes alive with a world-beat groove and technical wizardry
It's probably one of the most thrilling openings in modern theater: a lighting cue that suggests a drowsy savanna dawn, punctuated by the echoing call of an excited baboon, a rhythm that builds into the sweeping song "Circle of Life," as the sky brightens and African animals gather at the water hole for a new day. But we're in a theater, and the "animals" are puppeteers in masks and outfits, and not only do the seams show and the tricks are exposed, there is joy in sharing the experience.
Disney's 'The Lion King'
» On stage: Through Dec. 9 (1 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays)
» Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall
» Tickets: $30 to $150
» Call: 591-2211 or visit ticketmaster.com
Each animal, as it is introduced, brings applause because of the sheer cleverness of its design -- giraffes are men on stilts, elephants are four people walking in a kind of parade float, a herd of leaping gazelles is made up of silhouettes on a Rube Goldberg bicycle apparatus, springboks are head-and-arm decorations on dancers, a cheetah is an animatronic wheelbarrow deal -- and the actors and dancers and singers aren't just wearing these things, they're nearly bursting out of them as they channel the animal spirits they're portraying.
It's joyous and gape-inducing. Amazing. Stupendous. Brilliant. Fabulous. Mind-boggling. Supply your own over-the-top descriptive; it's not enough. For here is the magic of Disney's "The Lion King" -- it is not only a thoroughly modern, technological marvel; it is also a primitive celebration of kindred animalism, not far removed from shamans in skins dancing around a wood fire, the flickering light licking at half-seen cave paintings of animal spirits. "The Lion King" takes you back not just to a childlike sense of wonder at all things, but to the dawn of existence.
Most everyone has some passing familiarity to the original animated feature, which became the most financially successful cartoon movie, like, ever. And how the Disney megacorporation, anxious to capitalize on the live-stage success of "Beauty and the Beast," hired avant-garde designer and director Julie Taymor to tame "Lion King" for the stage. And how she did the opposite -- opening it up, adding more scenes and songs, breaking down the fourth wall between audience and stage, reveling in classical puppetry techniques such as "bunraku" and Javanese shadow puppets, and, above all, morphing the insular pride-lands experience of the original feature into more of a universal, world-beat groove.
It's all true. If there's a star born from "Lion King," it's Taymor, whose creative thumbprints are all over the production.
By now, "Lion King" has not only become a modern theatrical classic, it has been fine-tuned to the nth degree by Disney's stage techs. It's critique-ly bulletproof, although I did feel the first half has a more coherent story arc than the second, which is more episodic. And that Gugwana Dlamini as Rafiki, Geno Segers as Mufasa and Kevin Gray as Scar are standouts in an outstanding cast.
Is it worth the admission cost?
What would you pay to experience something you'll never forget?