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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Stunning Spectacle

Theater Reviews

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Itis in the opening moments of the staged musical version of The Lion King that the visual spectacle of puppetry and theater creates its own magic and literally takes flight. Birds soar above the audience while giraffes amble along amid lumbering elephants, graceful gazelles and other African creatures, all making their way toward Pride Rock. There, they pay homage to their lion king, Mufasa, on the birth of his son, Simba, while the strains of “Circle of Life” play on.

Those familiar with the 75-minute Disney movie will be dazzled by the feats of daring design within this two hour, 40 minute production that opened last Thursday night at the Milwaukee Theatre (Wednesday’s snowstorm cancelled the planned opening). Now entering its 11th year as a stage musical, The Lion King departs from other Disney musicals transported to the stage, note for note, scene for scene. Director Julie Taymor has created spectacular images of actors integrated into the shapes and forms of animals through the use of multidimensional large scale puppets, African masks and shadow puppetry. The effects are dazzling, simply stunning to watch, and it is easy to become lost in the visual spectacle, even as it adds to the majestic pageantry of this show.

When Mufasa’s evil brother, Scar, convinces Simba he is responsible for his father’s death during a stampede of wildebeests, the young king-tobe runs away into self-exile. Along the way he meets his friends, Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the wart hog, who cheer him up and aid him in discovering his true self on his way back to the throne—and Pride Rock.

The film’s recognizable musical numbers by Elton John and Tim Rice remain intact and recognizable to the film’s devotees while incorporating additional music by South African songwriter Lebo M, among others. Garth Fagan’s lively, joyful choreography makes the numbers come alive, be it Simba’s “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” to Timon and Pumbaa’s life mantra “Hakuna Matata” (“No Worries”).

But it is the visual imagery of The Lion King that remains long after the last note is sung, be it the tall savannah grasses listlessly waving in unison atop the heads of dancers, or the ghostly interplay of shadow and light within the dead Mufasa’s face when he appears in the night to his lost son.

With the return of the rightful king, The Lion King comes full circle—for children of all ages, big and small. It runs through March 2 at the Milwaukee Theatre.