Fourteen years since opening on Broadway, where it continues to reign as the dominant musical theater standard-bearer for kids and adults alike, Disney’s “The Lion King” finally arrives in Dayton to unsurprisingly close the 2010-11 season on a marvelous high note overflowing with visually stunning pizzazz and uniformly excellent performances.
“The Lion King,” based on the 1994 animated film of the same name and presented by the Victoria Theatre Association’s Miami Valley and Good Samaritan Hospitals Broadway Series, is the technically brilliant brainchild of director Julie Taymor and a recipient of six 1998 Tony Awards including Best Musical. The production simply astounds at the outset due to the incomparable pageantry of “Circle of Life,” one of the finest opening numbers ever created. Within five applause-inducing minutes of spine-tingling splendor, a whimsical actor-puppet assemblage of birds, elephants, gazelles, giraffes, rhinoceroses, zebras and more gather together on stage and off. Although this ingeniously conceived prologue feels slightly rushed here and could benefit from more processional surprises in the aisles, a concern I’ve had with previous “Lion King” tours over the years, it is a crowd-pleasing hallmark worth the price of admission.
Elsewhere, Taymor’s finesse as an avant garde visionary stunningly elevates the action from her incorporation of shadow puppets to moments of high drama (the wildebeest stampede) and emotional poignancy (the sight of lionesses in mourning). Still, her artistic wizardry, particularly her fascinating mask/puppet designs co-created with Michael Curry that never hide the actors, doesn’t overshadow the material, a significant attribute oddly ignored during her muddled creation of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” After all, this engaging yet character-overloaded tale of a young lion’s struggle with doubt, insecurity and fear following the premeditated murder of his father certainly resonates on its own without flashy conceptual interference as formulated by librettists Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, who remain faithful to the charm and heartbreak of the original screenplay co-written by Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. An assortment of strikingly authentic and atmospheric African-infused tunes from Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Taymor and Oscar winner Hans Zimmer also seamlessly accent Elton John and Tim Rice’s original songs, which include the Oscar winning “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Curiously, “The Morning Report,” a breezy ditty by John and Rice written for the stage version, has been cut from Act 1 but is not a detrimental loss.
Jelani Remy brings terrific soul-searching introspectiveness to his portrayal of Simba, who mistakenly flees Pride Rock in shame and ultimately confronts his past along the way. Remy’s achingly tender rendition of “Endless Night” is a truly compelling Act 2 highpoint. Dionne Randolph is fittingly regal yet compassionate as Mufasa, Simba’s imposing father. J. Anthony Crane embodies Simba’s treacherous uncle Scar with cool understatement and appealing sarcastic malevolence. Brenda Mhlongo, a joyful and playful Rafiki, particularly ushers in a dynamically uplifting version of “He Lives in You” opposite Remy late in Act 2. The delightful Tony Freeman, an expert puppeteer, exudes tightly wound sophistication as the fussy yet devoted Zazu. As Timon and Pumbaa, Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz respectively fulfill their comic relief duties with carefree zest. Andrew Arrington (Banzai), Monica L. Patton (Shenzi) and Ben Roseberry (Ed) are a compatible trio of silly hyenas. Syndee Winters, a fiercely determined Nala, supplies a lovely rendition of “Shadowlands.” Dusan Brown, Jerome Stephens, Jr., Monique Lee and Madai Monica Williams respectively alternate the roles of Young Simba and Young Nala. Tryphena Wade as Sarabi and Sharron Williams as the Cheetah are also noteworthy.
In addition to Taymor’s dazzling costumes, a particular explosion of color in the eye-catching “One by One,” Richard Hudson and Donald Holder are respectively responsible for an utterly remarkable set and lighting design. Garth Fagan’s spirited choreography is energetically executed with precision and passion. Music director Rick Snyder leads a solid orchestra featuring percussionists Stefan Monssen and Reuven Weizberg.
Whether you’re interested in seeing “The Lion King” for the first or fifth time, it remains an awesome spectacle not to be missed.
Disney’s The Lion King, which opened Thursday, June 16, continues through Sunday, July 10 at the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets. Performances are Wednesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Act One: 68 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $32-$141. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com
In addition, the Downtown Dayton Partnership and Victoria Theatre Association have partnered with local businesses to offer special discounts for Lion King ticket holders. For a complete list of promotions, along with parking information and more, visit www.downtowndayton.org