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.
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
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.