Although the play, in this case, is most definitely not the thing, The Lion King is a must-see event -- actually two must-see events. The first event, the one that immediately knocks your socks off, is the absolutely glorious restoration of the historic (1903) New Amsterdam Theater ("the jewel of 42nd Street"). This is the theater that Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. made famous with his Follies extravaganzas from 1913 to 1927. Starting off with a stupendous production (something Ziegfeld himself could not have imagined) of The Lion King, the Walt Disney Company and its theatrical productions department plan to make the fabulous theater famous once again with their own budget-be-damned stage shows.
Plan to arrive early enough to tour the entire theater. Go up one grand staircase and down another. Be sure to check out the lavishly-appointed lower lounges where food and drink are available. Wherever you look there is the fastidious representation of an era when artisans, craftsmen, and architects intended for their mythical subjects, as well as their own marvelous visions, to transport the public to a fantastical world of opulence and splendor. Be sure to examine the full 180-degree loop. Note the theater's delicate floral pattern carpeting, the splashier flora and fauna given full color bas relief on the archways and walls. It may be hard not to touch the adorned columns, but you will settle for looking up at awesome chandeliers and the vibrantly-painted glass domes. For this alone, you may feel you have already received full value of the price of your ticket. If you're inclined toward purchases (of hats, sweats and tee-shirts, mugs and mice, CDs and PJ's), Disney has included an adjunct of its 42nd Street merchandise store inside the theater, screaming of bold-faced commercialism. But isn't that the Disney way? Once inside the auditorium, you may be a little dismayed to see how much of the gorgeous decor on the balcony overhang is obscured by the necessary, but nevertheless unsightly, exposed lighting boards. Tall people will notice the lack of leg room. Although the main floor is nicely raked, remember the New Amsterdam is still an old theater revamped and where sight lines may vary. If you bring a child to the theater -- and absolutely do bring a child to this fabulous debut production -- be sure to bring a cushion along.
The main event, of course, is the show itself. Without exaggeration, The Lion King is unlike anything we have seen before. And it is breathtaking. Just the beating of the authentic tribal drums in the opening moments had my pulse racing. For maximum effect, the drums have been strategically placed in boxes on both sides of the auditorium. If you are lucky, you may feel, as I did, the brush of plumage passing by and over your head. Exotic high and low flying birds are kept aloft with thin, flexible poles that reach right up to the balcony. This heralds the opening scene, a procession down the aisles of Africa's most representative inhabitants, including an awesome life-sized elephant, and an incredibly long-necked giraffe. Give an artist as gifted as Julie Taymor $14 million to play with, and there's no telling what magic she can conjure up.
But just as you may be in complete awe of the wittily and wondrously conceived creatures of the earth and air as they make their way to Pride Rock, the first real tingles comes from the aural thrill of the sound of a chanting chorus. Their voices envelop every corner of the auditorium. You will eventually hear the possibly familiar and mostly forgettable five songs from the Lion King film, written by Elton John and Tim Rice. Yet know that they definitely take a back seat to a considerably expanded musical context, with excellent new songs by South African composer Lebo M, and those by Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, and Hans Zimmer. Through them, the pulsating rhythms and poetry of Africa with a specific Zulu character are evoked throughout the show.
In the same character, even choreographer Garth Fagan does some of the most inventive work of his career by bringing life to an exotic terrain -- the grasslands actually dance -- a life that could never be so captured in words and music alone. This stunning artistically reconceived and musically reconsidered variation on Disney's 1994 cartoon feature is, if nothing else, a triumph of concept over content. For this we have to thank Taymor, whose unique artistic vision as the show's director and designer is what makes The Lion King the uncommon treat it is. Functioning in true Renaissance fashion, Taymor has done more than take control of this mammoth show. She has directed the enterprise with the savvy and know-how usually identified with more seasoned directors of big shows, like Hal Prince. Taymor has managed to use the simple story as the ultimate showcase for her most astonishing talents as a costumer and mask and puppet designer (here in collaboration with Michael Curry). Also credit the gifted Taymor with the lyrics to one of the new songs. In the past, Taymor's work (Juan Darien, Transposed Heads) was noteworthy for being conspicuously dark and disturbing. With The Lion King, she tempers her flair for the foreboding and nightmarish. Yet even with The Lion King, with all its characters given a fresher look (a highlight is Tsidii Le Loka, a South African who plays the baboon-shaman and also wrote the tribal chants), there is evidence of the commendable unsentimental edge to Taymor's aesthetic. Unlike millions of the film's fans, I took exception, if not umbrage, to the way the cartoon dealt with the hyenas as fascistic, inner-city, goose-stepping, neighborhood-ruining scavengers. There, I've said it! There was also the question of the cartoon's depiction of Pride Rock as a classist, elitist, hardly democratic, social structure. And then there's the ascension of Simba to absolute power, not through deed, ability, or wisdom -- learned or innate -- but through a right of royal lineage and his birthright as a member of a superior order. Certainly, there was the inference of a confluence of Scar's devious character and his inferred homosexuality.
The great news is that all this perverse subtext is gone and virtually forgotten in Taymor's stagecraft-exalted vision. Well, not entirely. Scar, as humorously played by John Vickery, is still loathsome, but now seen with keener sense of his own unctuous theatricality. What, you may ask, is so great about losing the cartoon's romanticized narrative, its rampant sentimentality, let alone its flagrant political incorrectness? The answer is simple. Taymor has chucked the notion of putting a cartoon on stage (as in Beauty And The Beast) and put the story on a more imaginative and esoteric track in order to create a world we have never seen before.
If the tragedy of Mufasa's death during a stampede of wildebeests does not summon up the tears (it probably will), be assured that the staging of the scene will take your breath away. Don't expect to be touched at all, except by whatever may pass you by. This is not to say that grown Simba (Jason Raize) and Nala (Heather Headley) don't make a warming presence with their good looks and voices.
The principal pleasure of The Lion King is the dual experience of seeing the performers' expressive faces and limber bodies reveal delightfully human traits, even as they manipulate, wear, and control the extravagant, occasionally cumbersome, masks and costumes that often appear to have personalities and idiosyncrasies of their own. One of the nicest touches is when Samuel Wright, as Mufasa, removes the great Lion mask for a heart-to-heart talk with his son, the young Simba (Scott Irby-Ranniar). Later, you won't know what to watch or who is funnier when long-tailed, court-jester Geoff Hoyle manipulates with sticks the jabbering hornbill Zuzu. The show's clowns like Pumbaa (Tom Alan Robbins) and Timon (Max Casella) fare best, and are best at suggesting the perennial need for humor to survive a cruel world. The spacious settings by designer Richard Hudson and the splashy lighting by Donald Holder are no less a part of this stunning African fable than are all Taymor's creatures great and small.