Lions on the prowl. Gazelles a-leaping. Giraffes meandering. An elephant lumbering.
No, you’re not in a zoo or on a photo safari in Africa. This is “The Lion King,” the splendiferous, one-of-a-kind Broadway spectacle.
The full proof of director-designer Julie Taymor’s genius, Disney’s “The Lion King” works its magic through Sunday, April 6, at the Paramount Theatre. It isn’t the first time the touring production has visited, and it won’t be the last. But for newbies who want to finally see what the hoopla, the six 1998 Tony Awards (including one for best musical), and the 16-year run on Broadway are all about, here’s a chance.
A coming-of-age fable that transports elements of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to the African savanna, “The Lion King” is not so much an adaptation of the Disney animated film of the same title. It’s more like an explosion of it, twice as long and a continual feast for the senses — visually, kinetically and musically (the score is mostly African-based, with scattered pop tunes by Elton John and Tim Rice, among others).
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The famous opening number alone may be worth the high-end ticket, with a chattering, shamanic baboon (played by Brown Lindiwe Mkhize) singing the eco-anthem “The Circle of Life” as a wild kingdom of life-size puppets proceeds down the aisles.
Codesigned by Taymor and another genius, Portland-based Michael Curry, the creative folkloric puppets and masks are the show’s most stunning elements, enhanced by Richard Hudson’s gorgeous territorial sets and Donald Holder’s color-drenched lighting.
One standout effect (inspired by African ritual attire) is what Taymor calls “the double event.” Many members of the large, agile cast sport anthropomorphic animal (or plant) masks, or wear body puppets while their own faces are also exposed. Your eye switches between the animal and human visages, setting up an interesting dynamic between humans and lions, wildebeests, zebras and others.
The “Lion King” plot is simplistic enough to engage a kindergartner. The frisky cub Simba (Jordan A. Hall, alternating with Nathaniel Logan Mcintyre) adores his father Mufasa (L. Steven Taylor), the regal head of their pride.
But Simba gets into some serious mischief, spurred on by Mufasa’s scheming brother Scar (Patrick R. Brown), a usurper with a sneering British accent and a pack of hyenas as his henchmen. (The hyenas’ homeboy chatter is an unintended, but grating, play on African-American stereotypes.)
Some bad things happen to good lions in the show, as do a few moments of violence and grief that might be too scary for a very young or impressionable viewer. But at any age, one can relish the show’s profusion of color, motion (Garth Fagan’s marvelous, ever-present choreography), humor and music.
Most familiar in the score (and echoed from the film) are the John-Rice pop power ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and the peppy ditty “Hakuna Matata”
(sung by a meerkat and warthog duo). There are also some effective swatches of film composer Hans Zimmer’s sweeping orchestral music.
But what a treat that most of the score is suffused with intoxicating African harmonies and rhythms (check out the two drumming stations on display), arranged and in some cases composed by leading South African musician Lebo M.
For however Disneyfied “The Lion King” may be, it is also a sincere homage to African culture.
Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes