When Disney’s animated The Lion King was adapted for Broadway 13 years ago, it seemed a curious choice for source material. But director Julie Taymor transformed the cartoon spin on Hamlet into something utterly unique—a blend of familiar tunes and new rhythms, of conventional performance and puppeteering. The result isn’t perfect; it’s simply stunning stagecraft.
The story is familiar to anyone who was a kid—or had a kid—since 1994. The lion monarch Mufasa (Dionne Randolph) still teaches his young son Simba about the circle of life, under the jealous eye of Mufasa’s brother Scar (J. Anthony Crane). A tragedy still turns Simba (Adam Jacobs as an adult) into a guilty refugee who learns the ways of “hakuna matata” from meerkat Timon (Nick Ordileone) and warthog Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz). And eventually he’ll feel the love tonight with lioness Nala (Syndee Winters).
But along the way are jaw-dropping set pieces that showcase Taymor’s miraculous animal costumes, beginning with the opening “Circle of Life” parade of creatures down the Capitol Theatre aisles. The performances often become the closest thing a theater stage has to pure voice performance, yet the actors also often face the challenge of manipulating complex puppets. There are several songs added to the original Elton John/Tim Rice film score, and while not every one works, the addition of Lebo M.’s African chants makes the tale feel more like a rich piece of folklore. Throw in the satisfying comedy for all ages, and the result is like a circus mixed with Shakespeare—immersive delight for all ages.