Entertainment » Theatre

The Lion King

by Rey Dabalsa
Contributor
Monday May 21, 2012
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Syndee Winters and Jelani Remy in "The Lion King"
Syndee Winters and Jelani Remy in "The Lion King"  (Source: Joan Marcus)

Disney’s "The Lion King" roars into Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center. The production is nothing short of spectacular; an endless feast for the senses that can only be described as unparalleled, unbridled, and magnificent.

I must admit that despite the fact that this award-winning musical has been in New York for over 15 years and traveling the world for over 10, this is my first time seeing it. I was captivated from the moment the puppet-tronic elephants and giraffes made their way onto the stage during the moving "Circle of Life" to the thrilling "King of Pride Rock," two and a half hours later.

As the stage adaptation of one of Disney’s most popular movies, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone not familiar with the story. Simba, the future king, is betrayed by his uncle Scar only to reclaim his throne years later, fortified by his relationship with his adorable friends Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog.

But when a story is this familiar, one does not necessarily attend the performance to be moved by the story. Instead, one attends out of sheer curiosity to see how they managed to adapt a hugely popular cartoon into a theatrical production. In this regard, Disney does not disappoint on any level.

Although the performances were outstanding (more on this below), this production is unlike any other on the Broadway series as the stars of the show are not the performers, but the set, the lights, and Julie Taymor’s awe-inspiring costume creations.

Her genius is evident not only in her ability to bring cartoon characters to life, but doing so in a manner that permits the viewer to forget that there are, in fact, humans controlling those puppets. Ms. Taymor is both costume-designer and director, which gives her almost total control over what proves to be a jaw-dropping spectacle of theatricality.

The rest of the creative team fuses their singular visions flawlessly and beautifully. Richard Hudson’s set design effortlessly transports the actors (and the audience) to a world where nature is both judge and jury.

Donald Holder’s fantastic lighting design may as well be listed among the list of characters as it adds a magical, almost surreal element that takes on a life of its own.

The evening is an exquisite combination of powerful performances with visual artistry that is unique, highly sophisticated, and yet refreshing all at once.

Garth Fagan’s stirring choreography, an African-inspired ballet, is the glue that perfectly binds the story, the costumes, the set, and every other visual element. The fact that the music and lyrics were written by legends Elton John and Tim Rice does not hurt either. Be warned, you will find yourself humming and/or singing their songs days after you leave the theater.

The movie’s many memorable characters are brought to life by a highly talented cast. Buyi Zama’s Rafiki and Dionne Randolph’s Mufasa both deliver powerful, memorable performances accentuated by superb voices perfectly at home on a Broadway stage.

Nick Cordileone’s Timon and his pal, Ben Lipitz’s Pumbaa can border on the campy at times but do provide most of the laughs and their genuine chemistry is visible from the moment they step on stage.

J. Anthony Crane is as deliciously evil as Scar as the Young Simba and Young Nala are endearing. Zazu, the witty, quirky red-billed hornbill is cleverly voiced and marionetted by Mark David Kaplan whose comic timing kept many of us in stitches. Jelany Remy and Syndee Winters as the older Simba and Nala are authentic and gifted triple-threats with dazzling futures ahead of them.

The only negative of the night was the sound system. Some of the performers’ best lyrics were lost or simply overwhelmed by the music and/or the natural noises dancers must make as they move about the stage.

This is, of course, a condemnation of the space (the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House), and not of the performance or the performers. Luckily, the songs are so familiar to audiences that they will not mind the occasional muffed lyric here and there.

On the whole, "The Lion King" experience is one that will not soon be forgotten. The evening is an exquisite combination of powerful performances with visual artistry that is unique, highly sophisticated, and yet refreshing all at once.

The production’s remarkable tapestry, story and music will transport the six-year-olds in the audience to a far-away mystical land where lions rule and, interestingly enough, make the rest of us wish we were six again (if only to enjoy the wonder of it all through the eyes of a child).

"The Lion King" runs through June 10 at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. For info or tickets call 305-949-6722 or visit www.arshtcenter.org

Rey Dabalsa is a high school English teacher. He holds a Bachelor’s in Theatre and worked as a playwright and actor for many years before entering the education arena.

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