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Lion King Brings the Pride Back to the Academy

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The Lion KingDirector Julie Taymor became the first woman in Broadway history to receive the Tony Award for Best Director of a musical. Taymor, along with Michael Curry, created hundreds of masks and puppets for The Lion King.  

“I wanted to go for elegance, not cute,” said Julie Taymor, director. 

So what's the attraction? Is it the costumes, masks, and puppets? As Taymor tells us "As an audience member at The Lion King, you have an important job; with your imagination, you are invited to "mix" the animal with the human into a magical whole. When the human spirit visibly animates an object, we experience a special almost life giving connection. We become engaged in both the method of storytelling as well as the story itself.”

This concept achieves its goal in grand fashion. There are more than 200 puppets, 25 kinds of animals, birds, fish and insects, including 39 hyenas and 52 wildebeests. Disney's animated characters are so expressive -- "they're animals, but they're very human animals," according to Taymor. 

The Lion King: The Broadway Musical celebrated its world premiere at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN, on July 8, 1997. Still going strong on Broadway, and in a variety of other locations around the globe, this musical version of Disney's greatest animated feature ever has already drawn rave reviews for its dazzling special effects and staging, the inspired music by Tim Rice, Elton John, Hans Zimmer, and Lebo M., and for its nearly magical performance by a cast using masks and puppetry combined with live acting to convey the atmosphere of The Lion King. 

The Lion KingThis production broke new ground in theatrical technology, attempting to bring to the stage such vast and sweeping elements as the rolling African savannah and the famous wildebeest stampede in which Mufasa is killed by his brother Scar. Far from shrinking from the challenge or toning down the scale of the film, director Julie Taymor succeeded in the superhuman feat of reproducing the film's vastness through ingenious staging techniques and experimental methods worthy of Walt Disney Theatrical, producers of the wildly popular Beauty and the Beast Broadway musical, which also debuted at the Orpheum. 

The music is also a major factor to this show's enduring popularity. The animated Lion King film incorporates songs by composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice; "The Circle of Life," "Can You Feel The Love Tonight," and "Hakuna Matata". For the stage version, more songs were added. The creative team turned to South African songwriter Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Hanz Zimmer. The score is a blend of American popular music with the complexity of African rhythms into a seamless and completely new concept that works for this production. 

The plot, while played out entirely by animals is very human indeed. The Prideland is thriving well as a new life and heir to King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi is born. An inheritance that is coveted by the King's brother Scar as he plots the death of his brother by using the young heir Simba as part of the bait to execute a planned accident. Devastated and convinced that he is responsible for his father’s death, Simba leaves the Pridelands. When Scar believes Simba is also killed in the accident he takes over the pride ruling with arrogance and injustice...until Simba returns. 

That being said, the packed house at the Academy couldn’t be more excited to welcome back Simba and company. This tour-de-force is well equipped to handle the gorgeous carnival of hybrid creatures. The most gratifying sound comes from the ooohs, aaahs of the adults and the gleeful giggles of the children as they feast their eyes on the spectacle that has become the hallmark of the Lion King. 

The stellar cast is lead by Dionne Randolph as Mufasa, Ntomb’khona Dlamini as Rafiki, LaShanda Reese-Fletcher as Sarabi, Tony Freeman as Zazu, and Brent Harris as Scar. All command the stage nicely. The  young cubs Elijah Johnson and Madia Monica Williams, (young Simba and young Nala) offer outstanding, energetic performances, as does the all grown up Simba (Andre Jackson) and Nala (Marja Harmon). 

The rest of the principle cast includes the superbly funny Tyler Muree as Timon and his pudgy, gassy sidekick Pumbaa played by Cherry Hill native Ben Lipitz. Those pesky hyenas are played by Andrea Jones, Omari Tau and Ben Roseberry. 

Taymor’s adaptation is a stunning visual feast that is playful, imaginative and simply enchanting.  Lion King is theater magic at its best. 

The Lion King plays at the Academy of Music, 260 S. Broad St. Phila. Through April 24, 2010. 

For tickets and information: Call 215-731-3333 or online at www.kimmelcenter.org.

Photo:

Disney's The Lion King (Right)
Phindile Mkhize as “Rafiki” in the opening number “The Circle of Life” 
6.54 MB JPG
Photo: Joan Marcus ©Disney
March 30 - April 4, 2010
Academy of Music
  Disney's The Lion King (left)
Mufasa and Scar
6.43 MB JPG
Photo: Joan Marcus ©Disney
March 30 - April 4, 2010
Academy of Music
  Disney's The Lion King (homepage)
André Jackson as “Simba” and the Ensemble singing “He Lives In You” 
5.85 MB JPG
Photo: Joan Marcus ©Disney
March 30 - April 4, 2010
Academy of Music