The Lion King
The beautifully restored New Amsterdam Theater transforms into a magical kingdom indeed with the debut of the much-anticipated stage version of Disney's animated feature. Director Taymor draws on her accomplished artistic background in puppetry and ritualized theater to unleash a visual celebration that's simply transcendent. Any mom or dad with a child under 12 knows the story: Simba the lion cub (Irby-Rannier) is destined to be king of the jungle when he grows up. But he soon falls into evil paws. Scar (John Vickery), Simba's uncle, murders the cub's father and convinces young Simba that it is his fault. The little guy is exiled to the forest, where he works on his leonine self-esteem to reclaim the throne. But forget about the Happy Meal fodder of the original. Yes, the production stays true to the film's plot and dialogue, but while the movie lasted only 75 minutes, the show stretches to two hours and 40 minutes of life-size lions, giraffes, hippos and elephants. Taymor darkens the story's edge by playing up themes of life and death and rooting the visuals in African and Asian theater. The actors morph into beasts through spectacular puppetry and exquisite masks, and the familiar creatures – Timon the meekat, Pumbaa the wart hog, Zazu the hornbill – spill into the aisles for circus-like excitement. The unexceptional songs stick to the movie soundtrack's, although this adaptation incorporates tribal rhythms for a more authentic beat. The choreography also stumbles, and the rendering of the story's best-loved tune “Hakuna Matata” lacks verve. And while all the performers can carry a tune, only Irby-Rannier as the impetuous, conflicted Simba forges an emotional connection with his performance. Indeed, a visual artist first and foremost, Taymor falls short when it comes to sustaining the narrative and fleshing out characters; as a result, the eye-popping action roars louder than the story's suspense. Still, this Lion King inspires a heady case of jungle fever, thanks to Taymor's unabashed creativity.
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