DALLAS If you’re dying to spend the day at the State Fair of Texas and cap it off with a two-and-a-half-hour musical, then you had better get to Dallas Summer Musicals now. The current touring production of The Lion King will be the final State Fair musical, as DSM’s contract with the fair is up and it will no longer make people who just want to see a show deal with parking during the fair.
Though the group is giving up a tradition that goes back decades, it’s a smart move. DSM has always used this slot to book the never-fail sellouts, and this side of Wicked, you won’t find a show that fits that description better than this Tony-winning adaptation of what is Disney’s best animated film from the past 25 years (apologies to Wall-E).
Speaking of tradition, that’s what makes Julie Taymor’s staging of The Lion King so special.
The story is the same as in the 1994 film: King of the savannah Mufasa and his wife, Sarabi, have a cub, Simba, that is destined to inherit Mufasa’s status. But Mufasa’s brother, Scar, is jealous, and plots to kill both his brother and nephew.
So we get a story that involves wacky/wicked hyenas, wise-cracking meerkat Timon and smelly warthog Pumbaa. And it’s Disney, so there’s a happy ending. The music and lyrics, by Elton John and Tim Rice, are as schlocky as they are in the movie.
But Taymor, who cut her teeth on puppetry, mask and physical theater inspired by techniques from Asia, Africa and Europe, turned this production into something visually stunning, a real work of art compared with other inside-the-lines Disney film-to-stage adaptations (ahem, Beauty and the Beast).
It’s hard to imagine 15 minutes of a Broadway musical more magical than the opening sequence of this show, in which the animals of the savannah enter from the back of the theater and slide across the stage to celebrate the birth of Simba. Giraffes, an elephant, rhinos, cheetahs, antelopes, gazelles and myriad birds move in a surprisingly lifelike manner, thanks to bunraku and other puppetry techniques. Later, several uses of shadow puppetry add whimsy. (The cheetah, here performed by Sharron Lynn Williams, is an especially adept fusing of puppet, puppeteer and movement.)
Throughout the show, in addition to the pop tunes by John, we get African-inspired chants and dance, and even vegetation and other objects come to life in innovative, theatrical ways. It’s enough to give the show a recommendation simply on the visuals and theatrical magic.
Yes, there are actors, too. The show-stealers are the trio of lead hyenas (Rashada Dawan, Keith Bennett and Robbie Swift), Nick Cordileone as Timon and Ben Lipitz as Pumbaa. As Zazu, Mufasa’s tattle-tale bird, Andrew Gorell is the best example of how the audience quickly adjusts to watching the puppet and not its manipulator. Patrick R. Brown makes a snobby Scar, but he’s not quite menacing enough to be a threat. And as the witchy baboon Rafiki, Brown Lindiwe Mkhize has the most memorable singing voice.
That leaves the main lions of the story, but as the good and noble characters, they’re all pretty boring. That doesn’t deter L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa, Dashaun Young as Simba and Nia Holloway as Nala from textured performances. As Young Simba, Jordan A. Hall is adorable (he alternates in the role with Nathaniel Logan McIntyre).
But again, the Disney-esque aspects, such as the songs and dialogue, aren’t anything special. What more than compensates for that is the visuals. If you want your kids, of any age, to be inspired by inventive theatrical techniques and great visual storytelling, and remain entertained, then The Lion King is still the king of the Disney/Broadway jungle.
It’s worth dealing with parking during the fair.