A brilliant morning sun burns the fog off the African savanna, and thus begins "Circle of Life," one of the great opening production numbers in musical theater.
In this first scene from "The Lion King," clawed, horned, winged and otherwise-endowed creatures of the jungle "? including a nearly life-sized elephant and rhinoceros "? traipse down the aisles to a rock-music beat and gather at Pride Rock with the audience in a leonine grip that it never lets go. It would be impossible for the rest of this production, making its Oklahoma City premiere at Civic Center Music Hall, to surpass the opening number in sheer spectacle, but the show does, at least, taper off from a high level.
Based on the Disney animated film, "The Lion King" is in its second decade, and the show's reputation precedes it. In addition to the 1998 Tony Award for Best Musical, the show also garnered five other Tonys. In addition to songs from the motion picture, by composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice, the stage version includes music by South African songwriter Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Hans Zimmer. How about that for a United Nations of composers?
This is the coming-of-age story of the lion cub Young Simba (Marquis Kofi Rodriguez at the reviewed performance), son of Mufasa (Dionne Randolph), the king of the jungle. Young Simba's path to the beastly throne would be smooth if it weren't for his conniving, usurping uncle, Scar (Timothy Carter). Although he is watched over by Mufasa's majordomo, Zazu (Tony Freeman, an excellent actor and puppeteer), Young Simba has a dangerously close encounter with three laughing and jiving hyenas (Andrea Jones, Randy Donaldson, Andrew Frace) in an elephant graveyard.
Young Simba's story darkens when a cleverly staged wildebeest stampede leads to tragedy, but he then begins his journey toward the inevitable happy ending. Being a product of the Mouse, "The Lion King" contains no moral complications or ambiguities that need explaining to the kiddies, and good triumphs over evil in the end.
The story is not much, so Julie Taymor's costumes and staging, along with Richard Hudson's scenic design and especially Donald Holder's lighting design, carry the show. For costumes, Taymor drew on two distinguished traditions: African masks and Japanese Bunraku puppetry. Both the masks and puppets are brilliantly theatrical.
African masks are often worn above the wearer's head, so the mask represents the character while the actor's exposed face conveys the character's emotions. In Bunraku puppetry, the puppeteer is always visible to the audience. The integration of puppet and puppeteer into a single character is a theatrical tour de force that is fascinating to watch.
CLOTHING AND CULTURE
Taymor's costumes also incorporate elements of African clothing and culture, notably the billowing dresses of the female lions and the indescribable costume of Rafiki (the delightful Phindile Mkhize).
Holder paints pictures with his lighting design. His multihued lighting for "Be Prepared" is exceptional.
For all its fine direction, "The Lion King" leaves few theatrical resources untapped, including ballet (both aerial and terrestrial) and burlesque, in the terrific comics Timon the meerkat (Mark Shunock) and Pumbaa the warthog (Bob Amaral).
One can see why "Lion King" did not win any awards for its music or book. The score is a hodgepodge of styles, ranging from a Gilbert and Sullivan-like patter to pop to soul to power ballad to vintage Disney. Regarding the book, if you like bad puns and flatulence jokes, you'll love this show.
"The Lion King" takes anthropomorphism and anthropopathism to new heights, but if you can handle those issues, you might want to take in this over-the-top children's show "? albeit a show for children of all ages "? just to see what everyone is talking about.