The pure spectacle of “The Lion King” (at the Paramount Theatre until Jan. 6) is unlike anything I’ve ever seen live.
The opener, led by the soaring Zulu and English vocals of understudy Mpume Sikakane (on the night we attended) as the mandrill Rafiki, is a three-ring circus of difficult artistic feats — in set design, costume design, puppetry, stilt walking and singing and dancing.
The 9-year-old who was along for the performance couldn’t stop pointing all around him at the massive rhino, the full-size elephant, the towering giraffes, the too numerous to name animals of the savanna — in elaborate puppet form — that flooded the aisles and the stage during that rousing opening song, “Circle of Life.”
The opening number alone made the trip downtown and the very late bedtime worth it. (The show started at just after 8 p.m., and we didn’t exit the theater until 10:45.)
My 9-year-old guest marveled of Simba, “How can they get a kid to remember the lines?!” (Note to child: He did a bit more than learn the words.)
The young actor portraying Simba as a lion cub was spot on, his delivery, singing and quick movements really capturing the playful puppy-ness of the animated character in the film, while dressed only as a boy. (The adults portraying lions wear lion masks on their heads, making the connection a little easier for the audience.)
The charismatic Scar’s delivery was dripping with mean-spirited but highly entertaining irony, a fitting homage to Jeremy Irons’ wicked cartoon lion in the original Disney film.
The bird Zazu, the assistant to Mufasa and then Scar, does his job with zeal and nearly steals the show — even when juxtaposed with scenes starring Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat-warthog duo famously portrayed in the 1994 film by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella. (All three of the characters are puppets. The actors stand in the background, voicing the lines and doing some fairly complex bunraku puppeteering — the Japanese form used by Thistle Theatre in Seattle.)
I don’t think that “The Lion King” does a great job of developing Simba’s character or motivations once he very quickly transitions into adulthood, but who am I to quibble with the script for the world’s highest-grossing musical of all time?
The hyenas who come to power midway through the musical were hair-raisingly creepy, especially when we spotted them silently slinking up the aisles nearby. The puppetry is all quite impressive, and it is really interesting how one’s eyes focus on the overall creation and movement of the animals on stilts, and not the person operating the giraffes or the cheetah.
The producers have somehow found theater performers who can act, sing, dance, operate puppets and create subtle, realistic movements as savanna creatures on stilts, too.
It’s a delicate balancing act, but this “Lion King” production has it down.
Note: A sensory-friendly performance is set for 2 p.m. Jan. 5, with lower light and sound levels and various other changes intended to create a supportive and judgment-free environment for families and friends with children or adults affected by autism or other sensory issues to enjoy live theater. Full details can be found here.
Fun fact: The show includes six African languages, Congolese, Sotho, Swahili, Tswana, Xhosa and Zulu.
Note to parents of younger kids (and a potential SPOILER): A parent dies in the play, which seems almost mandatory in Disney stories. Small children (or their parents) might find this upsetting.
The Paramount recommends the play for children at least 6 years old. Booster cushions are provided by the theater, and are pretty useful for kids less than 5 feet tall.