Everything you've heard about the first five minutes of The Lion King is true. When a golden sun rises on Richard Hudson's orange set, when birds on poles flitter about the audience's heads, when lion-masked actors prowl and wooden antelopes lope across the stage, when giant papier-mache'-style elephants galumph down the aisle -- all this to the unforgettable voice of Tsidii Le Loka, her face painted up as an African mask -- the only rational response is to cry a little and wonder at the glories of life and art. But being New Yorkers, at the sixth minute we ask ourselves, Where does a show go when its opening minutes are perfect? The answer, alas, is mostly down-down-down in act one; up down and up in the better second act.
The problem is not that Disney has dumbed-down another 19th Century classic for the masses. After all, The Lion Kingis based on a pop-culture animated cartoon. What rankles is that the high artistry that informs so much of the show must stand hoof-to-hoof with a book that, with every other one-liner, insults the audience's intelligence. Timon and Pumbaa offer delightful comic relief, but what are these jungle animals doing making puns based on titles of TV shows?
Much of the traditional-sounding African music (by a quintet of composers, including Lebo M), augmenting the Elton John and Tim Rice film score, also thrills. However, these soul-stirring numbers often segue into poppish stuff that would be catchy under other circumstances, but here sound like a crude lowering of standards. This mix of dazzling greatness and purposefully low-tier rubbish frustrates all night, but to the last, director/designer Julie Taymor shows extraordinary imagination, in everything from a thrilling waterfall rescue (just a branch and rippling canvas) to an effect where a round piece of cloth vanishing into a hole in the stage somehow conveys the passing of years. Samuel E. Wright's proud, life-filled papa Mufasa almost singlehandedly holds the show's first hour together. After that, enough goes right again with The Lion King that one can -- at least when in the theater -- shrug off the flaws with a jaunty "Hakuna Matata" and join the circle of life.