Review: The Lion King

The opening scene of stage version of "The Lion King"

The opening scene of stage version of “The Lion King”

WC isn’t a huge fan of Broadway and the American musical. Mrs. WC takes WC to a touring show from time to time, most recently to the Book of Mormon. But WC was actually looking forward to seeing The Lion King, the most successful Broadway musical – at least when measured by revenue – in history.

For those who don’t spend much time wallowing in popular culture, The Lion King was a successful Disney animated movie, released back in 1994. It was the second cartoon Disney brought to the Broadway stage, following Beauty and the Beast. The Lion King came to the stage in late 1997 and nearly 21 years along, it is still filling the house, both in New York and in its touring companies. Sunday night’s show in Boise at the Morrison Theater was certainly sold out.

The story is a bildungsroman, a young boy coming-of-age story. Yeah, it’s always a boy. The unspoken assumptions in the plot have not weathered all that well. The male royal patriarchy is natural, even essential, to the order of things, to the “Circle of Life,” to borrow the theme song title. The villain, Scar, commits a crime against nature by unseating the patriarchy, by murdering Mufasa, the father of the young hero, Simba, and usurping Simba’s rightful place. The pride suffers until the royal order is restored. George III and Justice Kavanaugh must love it.

The politically incorrect plot is wrapped in truly gorgeous spectacle. The stagecraft is absolutely astonishing, from the famous opening sequence, with the actor-animals walking down the aisle to South African chants, to the ending. Elephants, gazelle, Zulu dancers and hyenas danced past WC’s left elbow, while exotic birds circled overhead. The songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are okay, but the show is anchored by the adapted African chants and singing, written and arranged by Lebo M. The actors in the touring company were very good, bring an intense, animal vitality to their roles. Mukelisiwe Goba as Rafiki, the mandrill narrator/shaman, was especially good, and Salahedin Safi as the young Simba was a dervish of barely controlled energy.

The director, Julie Taymor, really did achieve a new synthesis in a Broadway production, blending techniques ranging from shadow puppetry to Japanese Bunraku. WC doubts that anytime before Lion King did Broadway stage a stampede of wildebeests or a herd of veldt-skimming gazelles, or render them with such breath-taking conviction. But in many ways, Taymor’s brilliantly realized vision, rooted in ritual forms of theater from Asia and Africa, collides with the ghost of Walt Disney, which requires visual spectacle to harnessed in the service of a happy ending.

It was like this: you have a wide smile on your face as you watch the show, while at the same time gritting your teeth at the unspoken, unsung assumptions. It nets out to a pretty good time, with modest guilt afterwards.

Lion King won a shelf full of awards, and certainly has struck a note with the musical-loving public for a long time, who have voted with their wallets.  It’s worth your money, too, if you get the chance.