“Mwindo,” a new play for young audiences that dramatizes an ancient African myth, plays at Seattle Children’s Theatre through Feb. 15.

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“This is really cool!,” exclaimed a fifth-grader, taking his seat for a student matinee of “Mwindo” at Seattle Children’s Theatre.

One could share his enthusiasm for the terrific scenic design on SCT’s broad mainstage, dominated by a sprawling, gnarled tree with branches big enough for several humans to nest in.

Respected Seattle playwright Cheryl L. West’s new adaptation of an ancient African folk tale got even cooler, visually, with an opening procession of colorful animal figures — a giraffe, flocks of birds and other creature puppets designed by Annett Mateo and manipulated by actors.

Theater review

‘Mwindo’

By Cheryl L. West. Through Feb. 15, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Seattle Center; $25-$36 (206-441-3322 or sct.org).

If the vibrant opening of “Mwindo” brings to mind “The Lion King,” albeit on a smaller scale, that’s not its only resemblance to that hit Broadway musical.

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For this too is a coming-of-age story, not about a lion cub but a tribal boy in the Congo, Mwindo (played, rather stiffly, by Tyler Trerise), who is born fully grown and reclaims his princely station after being cast into exile by a jealous relation. The villain here is his father, a tyrannical village chief portrayed with cackling relish by William Hall.

There’s also a pair of cute animal characters on hand (rather like “Lion King” clowns Timon and Pumbaa), for comic relief: the boisterous hybrid insect Spider-Cricket (Felicia V. Loud) and a pudgy, lovable hedgehog, Cha-Cha (Reginald A. Jackson).

Director Linda Hartzell, scenic designer Carey Wong, costume designer Nanette Acosta and the energetic ensemble cast excel at conjuring atmosphere.

The script, however, needs work. Its melodramatic plot gets stretched thin, beefing up intermittently with infusions of folkloric choral music, rudimentary but lively African-style dances, fight sequences and the puppet menagerie.

The dialogue leans heavily on stilted pronouncements (“He will pay mightily for his wicked ways!”), and the comic bits aren’t always ha-ha funny.

West’s goal here seems to be to evoke tribal African culture and register a reach-for-the-stars, believe-in-yourself lesson. The latter is delivered most potently by Tracy Michelle Hughes, a radiant presence as both Mwindo’s loving mother and his spirit-goddess aunt.

But a tighter text with better gags and fewer clichés would bring the play “Mwindo” up to the level of its impressive design.