San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre plays host to Disney’s The Lion King now through January 13, 2013. I put that out there right away because if you’re one for keeping a bucket list of must-see things to do and see before you ‘exit stage left’ then this show is surely one for the list. Directed and loved into being by Julie Taymor, who infuses her creation with rich multicultural beauty, soul-stirring African harmonies and life-sized almost living, breathing animal puppets, Lion King will capture your heart as it surrounds your senses with magic, wonder, awe and grace.
There is simply nothing more moving in modern musical theatre than the opening moments of Disney’s The Lion King. The sun will soon be rising on a new day in the African Pride Lands - where Lion King Mufasa (beautifully sung by Dionne Randolph) and Queen Sarabi (a delicate, yet bold Tryphena Wade) reign from Pride Rock over everything that the light touches.
All is quiet in the darkness before the dawn until a single spotlight suddenly shines on Rafiki (South African born Buyi Zami is amazing in this role), the wise mandrill storyteller and mystic who serves as advisor to the king. Hers is the voice that first rings out into the theatre, sending chills down your spine as she chants her call to the animal kingdom - a summons to the presentation of the newborn future king, lion cub Simba (a role shared by Zavion J. Hill and Adante Power).
What follows is breathtaking theatre and stunning stagecraft at its best, guaranteed to make your chest swell at the beauty of it all. Audible gasps of joy and wonder greet the appearance of the first animals, two stately giraffes, part puppet, and part human; wholly magical.
Soon the aisles and the stage are teeming with life and it’s hard to decide where to look first. As the African drums sound on either side of the stage, a herd of bounding gazelles leap across the stage as a leopard makes its way around them. Flocks of birds, antelope, even full-sized thudding elephants and lumbering rhinos with their requisite bird companions sitting atop their horns, make their way forth. Slowly the yellow-orange glow of sunrise fills the stage as a large paper sun unfolds on the scene of celebration.
All this takes place on Richard Hudson’s wonderous set. Pride Rock, the Elephant graveyard, sweeping grasslands and a far-off jungle are majestically displayed - and in Donald Holder’s beautiful lighting design they take on majesty, sinister fear or hakuna matata ease. Dancer/puppeteers leap, swirl, dip and sway in Garth Fagan’s hypnotic choreography. It’s easy to see why each of these artists received Tony awards for their work.
The puppets and masks worn by the dancers and leads are the work of designer Michael Curry and Taymor whose ingenious mix of Japanese, Indonesian and African cultural elements provide a vivid and textured array of visual delights. Taymor also designed the traditional African costumes over which the actors wear their stylized animal masks. The effect is stunning.
Conspicuously absent from the presentation of the future king is Mufasa’s brother Scar (a deliciously evil Derek Smith). Simba’s birth signals Scar’s demotion to spare-to-the-heir, but he soon finds a way around that. He cleverly devises a plot to kill Mufasa and then convinces Simba that he’s to blame for his own father’s death. Hudson’s wildebeest stampede (triggered by Scar) through a gorge is ingenious, although I have never understood the canyon wall design. Its angular lines give it an almost art deco feel that is not in keeping with the rest of the show’s earthy design. Simba buys his uncle’s lies and leaves without telling a soul, not even his father’s British “valet” Zazu, a hornbill played with glib perfection by Mark David Kaplan.