Saturday, November 5, 2016

"The Lion King"

The Lion King
Elton John & Tim Rice (Music & Lyrics)
Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi (Book)
Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, Hans Zimmer (Additional Music & Lyrics)

Buyi Zamu as Rafiki
Nineteen years and still running on both Broadway and in Tokyo.  Eighteen years in the West End of London and sixteen years in Hamburg, Germany.  Extended runs and national tours on every continent except Antarctica.  And now, yet another touring production arrives in San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre for a two-month stand.  Is there any doubt that Disney’s The Lion King – the most profitable musical ever – still reigns supreme and may hang onto its royal throne for as long or longer than Queen Elizabeth II herself?

No matter how many times I or probably anyone has seen a past production, who can deny having goose bumps, big smiles, and maybe even a tear or two as the glorious animals arrive after the multi-colored mandrill Rafiki belts – yea blasts – her now famous “Nants ingonyama hagithi Baha”?  First two towering, graceful giraffes arrive on stage as two actors almost float in unison on their stilted legs.  Then the first of the evening’s many gazelles leap gracefully across the staged savannah – two people sending the jumping animals forward via Julie Taymor’s and Michael Curry’s celebrated puppets.  Finally, the huge spectacle we have all been awaiting starts down the theatre’s main aisles.  A mammoth-sized elephant, a pair of zebra, and other once-inhabitants of Noah’s ark lumber to the stage while birds fly over audience heads as we all thrill to the familiar, harmonic chords and words of “The Circle of Life.” 

Yes, SHN has once again a packed house and a sure-fire winner.  The music and lyrics of Elton John and Tim Rice (along with sorted others) and the book of Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi fill the Orpheum Theatre with a musical that continues to inspire through its visual grandeur, to entertain through its humor (mostly with lines we can all quote), and to send chills through its grand and haunting melodies.  The Lion King comes to San Francisco, potentially generating as much awe as its first arrival many years ago -- both for returnees like myself as well as the many younger, first-timers with glued eyes bigger than saucers,

The now-familiar story includes thematic strands of honoring and protecting family and community bonds, of betrayal and murder as well as lies and unwarranted guilt, of environmental disaster brought on by ruling neglect, of readying the younger generation for an inevitable future time of being in charge, and of a son who must leave home in order to grow to be the man his father and greater clan need him to be.  The telling is peppered in full Disney style with lots of one-liners that adults enjoy even more than the kids; with quirky sorts who join up with the story’s hero to be both lovable and hilarious sidekicks and loyal pals; and with visuals that are high-color, fantastical, and eye-popping. 

Nia Holloway as Nala & the Lionesses
And then there is the aforementioned puppetry mastery as well as Tony-winning masks and costumes of Taymor and Curry.  Lion heads rise high above the actors below, only to swoop at neck’s bending to cover a painted human face and to allow the animal side fully to take over.  Animals are sometimes full-size puppets walking alongside their background manipulators; other times they come to life mostly hiding the actors with animal and human melting into one beautiful being of the wild.  Masks large and larger announce an approaching wildebeest stampede.  Birds of beauty, prey, and scavenger fly high overhead, swung in slow circles and patterns by the brightly colored humans below.

But none of this really matters if the much-beloved songs and story are not delivered year-in, year-out across the globe with the same degree of freshness, excellence, and star-power as the original Tony winning production of almost twenty years ago.  Fortunately, the current touring production is packed full of stunning voices and talented actors.  First and foremost is Buyi Zama with her trumpet-pitched vocals as Rafiki.  She is able not only to provide clarion calls beckoning together the entire animal kingdom but also to sing with haunting, mesmerizing, and soul-touching notes in songs like “Shadowland” and “He Lives in You (Reprise).”  (Ms. Zama, by the way, has performed the part on five continents.) 

Coming in a close second is the deliciously sinister Scar, jealous and ambitious brother to the king.  Mark Campbell completely fulfills the Disney-required model as the story’s necessary evil force to be finally conquered in a pitched hand-to-hand battle by the handsome prince.  At first, he is humorous in a sleazy, slithering way; but as the plot thickens, he transforms to just the kind of villain audiences love to hate but cannot get enough of. 

Equally impressive are the steady demeanor and deep voice of the father and king, Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) and the multi-pitched squawks and neck stretches and flops of his funny horn-billed advisor, Zazu (Drew Hirshfield).  With cartoon-worthy voices and animation-like moves and antics, Timon the meerkat (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa the warthog (Ben Liptiz, veteran of over 5000 performances in this role) are a comic duo that are visually a hoot and a holler and that help deliver one of the night’s most-known and most-beloved numbers, “Hakuna Matata.”  Mr. Liptiz is particularly memorable as he sings and acts with wonderful heart and humor in a voice that totally fits his smelly, bony warthog body with its oversized, smiling head.  And not to be over-looked in this menagerie of lovable African misfits are the shrieking, cackling, and full-on-guffawing hyenas Shenzi (Tiffany Denise Hobbs), Banzai (Keith Bennett), and Ed (Robbie Swift) who may at the core all be bad types but who are also laugh-producing and welcomed parts of this multi-faceted cast.

BJ Covington and Meilani Cisneros are the high-voiced, playful, and impish Young Simba and Young Nala (alternating the roles with Jordan Williams and Savannah Fleisher).  The two are part of a large, bright color-drenched number with Zasu and the entire ensemble, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” in which bizarre and delightful animal/bird-like characters right out of a Dr. Seuss book appear with them.  Nia Holloway is the older Nala of Act 2 and brings both dignity and bravery worthy of a young princess as well as a pleasing and impressive set of vocals. 

But the real surprise of opening night was the stand-by actor, Jalen Harris, who stepped in for the regular Dashuan Young as the late-teen Simba of Act Two.  While he fit right in with the foolishness and friendly poking and joking of Timon and Pumbaa, he was especially splendid when Simba seeks his familial roots and heritage in “Endless Nights.”  When he sings, “I know that the night must end and that the clouds must clear,” this Simba does not push or strain but just lets his crystal clear tones float with reflective desperation as he searches for the confidence that finally comes when he triumphs, “The sun will rise.”  Kudos to Mr. Harris for a substitution that played like a headline starring role.

Garth Fagan’s choreography is strikingly beautiful in the lionesses’ hypnotic “Shadowland” and is wild, funny, and a little scary as the hyena fill both aisles and stage in “The Madness of King Scar.”  And like the opening of the show itself, the panoramic beginning of the second act as directed by Julie Taymor is pure magic with leaping animals, flying birds, and the choral mastery of the entire ensemble in “One by One.”  The changing scenic touches of Richard Hudson (simplified somewhat from Broadway for the touring company) and the shadows, silhouettes, and contrasting hues of Donald Holder’s lighting round out a show that keeps the eyes constantly moving to capture it all.

The one major fault of opening night was a sound issue that caused a first-act interruption of nearly a half hour, making an evening already long almost intolerably longer for many of the younger (and even older) audience members.  Hopefully, this was truly a once-in-a-tour type of occurrence.

Fortunately, a slinking cheetah, twinkling fireflies, scampering mouse shadow puppet, circling buzzards, graceful gazelle wheels, and dozens of other inhabitants of the African plain helped everyone forget the night’s one aberration.  Looking at all the exiting smiling faces and listening to the collective humming of the various songs so engrained in most of us, I am fairly certain that the current The Lion King playing at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre is almost, if not totally, as good as any version any of us might have seen in the past two decades -- here or in Sydney, New York, Amsterdam, or wherever.

Rating: 5 E

The Lion King continues through December 31, 2016 at the SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Joan Marcus

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