Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall welcomed a pride of patrons Thursday to Nashville’s second Disney’s The Lion King opening. The current outing, dubbed the “Gazelle Tour” by the fine folks at Disney Theatrical Productions, is a worthy inheritor of the King’s crown: It offers audiences a majestic and whimsical spectacle that has no fear of technical pitfalls or hyenas.
The musical, partially based on Disney’s 1994 animated film of the same name, opened at the Orpheum in Minneapolis, Minn. way back in 1997 before moving to the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway two months later. The next year, The Lion King raked in six Tonys (Best Musical, Best Direction in a Musical, Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design and Best Choreography) and the Critics Circle award for Best Musical. In 2006 the show’s original Music City run sold out a six-week engagement.
Featuring music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, backed up by Lebo M of South Africa, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Hans Zimmer and even Director/Designer Julie Taymor, the show explodes with sound, fusing indigenous African rhythms and tones with the ostensibly worldlier pop. Choral Director Lebo M shared the traditions and spiritual elements of the songs with the cast, producing an undeniably authentic sound. Roger Allers (who directed the film version) and Irene Mecchi conceived an exquisite book, pushing through the vital points of story amid a swirl of action; combined with Garth Fagan’s excellent choreography, Donald Holder’s ingenious lighting design, Richard Hudson’s terrific set pieces and scrims as well as costumes, puppets and masks by Taymor and Michael Curry, The Lion King offers a rewarding experience for all.
Taymor and Curry’s costume designs are elegant and evocative. Lead lions Mufasa (Dionne Randolph) and Scar (Timothy Carter) bear “double feature” mask/headdress combinations that allow audiences to experience animal ferocity without losing the range of human expression. The actors shift their transforming headgear seamlessly, integrating them deeply into their characters. The pride’s lionesses, led by Queen Sarabi (Tryphena Wade), are no less rich in character for their static headdresses.
As a coming-of-age tale, The Lion King features two main characters that grow from children to young adults by the midpoint. Young Simba (Zavion J. Hill and Adante Power alternate in the role) and Nala (Kailah McFadden or Sade Phillip-Demorcy appear at various performances) are portrayed with tremendous energy and passion, and their elder counterparts (Jelani Remy and Syndee Winters respectively) adopt their zeal and mannerisms seamlessly.
Comedy relief characters Zazu (Mark David Kaplan), Timon (Nick Cordileone), and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz) are vigorous and brilliant all around. Kaplan’s puppeteer-acting may well have stolen the show were it not for the young Simba and Nala.
The meta-narrator Rafiki (Nteliseng Nkhela) keys the throughline’s movements with tremendous vocal power, second only to that of Randolph; his Mufasa anchors the show so well that his voice-only reappearance in Act II comes as something of a disappointment.
Dual ensembles round out the cast, singing and dancing their way across the stage and through the aisles. With a total of 49 cast members, the venue veritably teems with life. Amazing technical feats like a stampede and the final battle are played out flawlessly in a swirling dance that narrowly avoids chaos.
In addition to the major-league spectacle that is by this time expected of any Disney production, The Lion King offers something more ephemeral: real old-fashioned charm. The costumes/puppets in the ensemble are no less lovingly made than the leads’, and may even be more ingenious: The Pumbaa outfit comes in at 45 pounds. Eighteen-foot tall giraffes wander about the grasslands. Timon is a puppet worn in front of the actor, and the hyenas’ heads are operated by actors’ hands.
With all this technology, it would be easy to overwhelm the nature of live theater with puppets completely mirroring the animated characters. But the charm of immediate human performance is maintained in the design – faces are visible, and the costumes are evocative, crafty and fun. Parents might wonder how they were made even as their tots sit in rapt attention.
The Lion King may be Disney, but it isn’t just for the kiddies. There is much for theatergoers of all ages to appreciate.
Disney’s The Lion King continues Tuesdays through Sundays in TPAC’s Jackson Hall through June 2. Tickets (starting at $27) are still available through TPAC online (www.tpac.org) or by calling (615) 782-4040.
*Photos by Joan Marcus courtesy TPAC.