Disney’s The Lion King roars onto the stage with a procession of African wildlife in its opening number “Circle of Life”. Director Julie Taymor, who also serves as Costume Designer and mask & puppet Co-Designer with Michael Ward, sends her exquisitely conceived creatures – giraffes borne on stilts, a massive elephant and whirling birds held aloft on bamboo poles – streaming down the aisles of the Kennedy Center’s three-tiered Opera House in a fantastical African menagerie. Taymor, who studied Bunraku, the Japanese style of puppetry in which manipulators appear openly, and wayan kulit,the art of shadow puppetry, has magnificently incorporated these concepts into this spectacular production.
It is expected that by now that you are familiar with the story of Simba the young lion, King Mufasa his kindly father, Scar the evil uncle, Rafiki the baboon shaman, and Zazu the Red-billed Hornbill. They all inhabit Simba’s life, along with the strong-willed Nala, Simba’s childhood friend, Pumbaa the gassy warthog and Timon the wise-cracking meerkat. These are not the only characters we are treated to. There are hordes of wildebeests that stampede onto the stage, a pride of lions that dance around and lurking laughing hyenas who are lampooned by Pumbaa and Timon in the famous song “Hakuna Matata” meaning “no worries” in Swahili.
Lyricist Tim Rice and Composer Elton John’s score is beyond fabulous. “Can You Seen the Love Tonight” is one of John’s biggest hits. But it was Hans Zimmer who won an Oscar, two Grammys and a Golden Globe for the original film score and Soweto émigré, Lebo M, known as the “voice and spirit of The Lion King”, who contributed the gloriously rich African rhythms and melodies.
Most memorable are Simba, played by the adorable Jordan A. Hall who stalks and pounces his way into your heart. “I hate public pools,” he jokes after a dangerous dunk in the river; L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa, whose superlative voice cradles the emotions in “They Live in You” when he explains to Simba about his ancestors who reside in the stars; and Tshidi Manye as the wise Rafiki, whose evocative South African voice burns brightly in “Circle of Life” and “He Lives in You”.
Taymor’s costumes, using the vivid colors of tribal kente cloth, juxtaposes Set Designer Richard Hudson’s backdrops of grassy savannas and cerulean skies, while in desert scenes she employs the earthy shades of patterned Malian mud cloth to accentuate Hudson’s parched earth colored sets.
The Lion King is a lavish feast for the eyes and a paradise of music for the ears. I’d gladly swing from a baobab tree limb to claim it as one of my favorite musicals of all time.
Through August 17th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets and information call 202-467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.