‘The Lion King’ at the Altria is pure, unadulterated theatre magic
Review in five words: Of course go see it. It’s The Lion King. You’re not going to confuse it with King Lear. For one, King Lear has no Elton John songs.
The rest of this review is an example of prolixity (the use of too many words to express an idea). Yet I am narcotically compelled to write. Write. Write.
When you age and life becomes more precious, more and more things touch you and make you cry. Some things have always made me cry. The last scene of Field of Dreams and the first scene of The Lion King. Fathers and sons. Men, especially fathers and sons, are weird about showing emotion to each other. We have to watch others to open the water works.
African chanters call the populace to congregate. Majestic animals of every kind gather together. To the top of the highest peak climbs Mufasa, the Lion King. As Elton John and Tim Rice’s powerful ballad “The Circle of Life” crescendos, Mufasa holds up his infant son to the sky for all of his subjects to behold and praise. And I tear up; at the 1994 animated movie and last night at the Altria Theater.
Fathers proudly introducing their infant sons to their tribe. In my tribe it’s called a bris. And no one sings about it.
The Lion King has been running on Broadway for almost 20 years and the original animated movie has earned almost one billion dollars worldwide. It is a national treasure. The Broadway in Richmond series has brought the national tour back several times. In addition to “The Circle of Life” we are very familiar with the other John/Rice songs, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” “Hakuna Matata,” and “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King.”
The plot is familiar. It’s Hamlet. Jealous Uncle has his brother the King murdered, banishes the Prince/successor and takes over the kingdom. Timon and Pumbaa are Horatio. Gertrude is kind of written out but Ophelia/Nala kicks butt. You get the picture.
So the story is traditional. The John/Rice songs are pleasant but it’s no Oklahoma. So what makes this musical a cultural icon? The effects. The costumes, the giant puppet animals, the amazing mechanical structures developed to make the animals work, the march of the animals from every entrance and aisle of the theater, the gigantic sets, the gymnastic choreography, the fluid muscular movement of the fifty actors and dancers that fill the stage, the strobing lights and the shadow puppetry.
The play is a spectacular delight to the senses. For all of this we can thank Julie Taymor, the brilliant director and costume designer of the original Broadway production and every road company since.
She has assembled a truly outstanding crew, choreographer and designers.
But just as affecting about this musical is its African-ness. Its African music, song, dress and feel. The African music was composed for the movie by Hans Zimmer, who supplemented the score with traditional African music, choir elements and new songs written by Zimmer and others. The African music is as integral to the success of this play as any other element.
So. It’s an amazing spectacle, and as such, by definition, effective theater. But is it any different than the Ziegfield Follies or the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus? Would we go listen to an evening of African music without the spectacle? Is it an “important” work?
If you are a theater snob and want substance you won’t find it here. But if you like a really good time in the theater, a thrilling assault on your senses, this is for you. You will be delightfully overwhelmed and bowled over. Your inner child will smile. A lot.
This production is very good. I’m sure it takes over a hundred people to put on this show in a venue like the Altria. It is very expensive to mount. You will not see this kind of production at your local dinner theater.
Are there things to criticize? Sure. When you’re on the road and done a show a few hundred times, some of the performances will not look fresh. Anticipated moves and reactions belie spontaneity. Crispness of diction also tends to slack. Children actors seem a little too precious and rehearsed. Picayune ramblings of a dyspeptic know it all.
The performances are part of the spectacle. They are fascinating. Since all actors play animals, almost all have animal heads and bodies attached to their human ones. In the case of Timon, the actor stands behind the orange-ish meerkat puppet in green-face and matching leprechaun attire. Pumbaa is in a full warthog body encasing with gaping mouth and gaseous hind quarters. You find yourself watching the puppet. Then the actor. Then the actor manipulating the puppet while he sings and dances. For sheer difficulty of performing as a live puppet, these actors deserve double pay.
The children who play Simba and Nala have no puppet attached. A fourth level of disbelief is necessary. They are animals but have totally human features. If there’s a heavy message there I didn’t care to parse it out.
I didn’t love every performance. The actor playing Scar, the evil uncle, seemed robotic and lost in his own existential world. His number with the hyenas seemed uncharacteristically messy. The adult Nala had so low a register every line seemed whispered and lost to me in the 12th row.
You do love whatever comedy you can find. Act One has Zazu. Zazu is a hornbill who is the majordomo of Mufasa. He has the jokes. In an obvious updating, he abusively sings “Let It Go,” from another Disney license, Frozen (which no doubt will hit the stage at any moment).
Timon and Pumbaa (playing Laertes as the Abbot and Costello of the Serengeti) pick up the comedy roles in Act Two. They abuse “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” not a Disney license and one, I read, for which Disney had to pay substantial royalties to use.
The plot is minimal, the jokes are stand up, and the John/Rice songs English pop imports. Yet the sum of The Lion King’s parts is majestic.
Going to see The Lion King at the Altria is like living in New York City. There are 1000 people on every block. Too many cars, too many people, parking is too expensive. However, once you get in that palace and the lights dim, you’re 10-years-old again and the world is a magical place. I’ll never grow too old for that.
The Lion King at Altria theatre runs now through May 8th with almost two shows daily. You can pick up tickets here!
SPARC presents LIVE ART: BLUE where kids with abilities and disabilities alike perform on the Altria stage this Sunday
This year’s performance, titled LIVE ART: BLUE, will feature three-time Grammy Award-winning blues musician Keb’ Mo’ and blues harmonica virtuoso Phil Wiggins.May 31, 2016
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