Say the words "Disney film" and certain ideas come to mind: animation, happy-go-lucky characters, and the inevitable moral. When Disney films are reproduced on stage, the same connotations exist, with costumed actors added to the mix, usually making for an entertaining children's evening but not exactly aimed at adults. With Disney's The Lion King, now playing at The Orpheum, the aim has changed resoundingly for the better.
The show opens with a blood-curdling call by Rafiki the baboon, a summons to the animal ensemble to begin the production's defining song, "Circle of Life." This is the first sign that this Lion King is not the same as the 1994 cartoon classic. While that movie was positively received by audiences, winning awards for its animation and musical score, the extravagantly costumed characters, special effects, and use of puppetry put this production in an entirely different category.
TV snippets of the show don't do it justice. The majesty of the opening animal march must be experienced in person. The Lion King draws audiences into the action through the simple use of the theater aisles. As two-man elephants, galloping gazelles, tall giraffes, and kite birds pass by on their way to the stage, euphoria sweeps over the crowd, setting the tone for an evening of grandeur.
The plot here is the same as the movie: The land of the animals on Pride Rock changes hands from father to son with lessons learned and a rebirth of courage. After Rafiki begins the play with young Simba held high, "Circle of Life" takes on additional meaning as the play progresses and ends with a similar scene. Also, as with the movie, the animal story is really a human story, complete with family conflict and jealousy.
Director and costumer Julie Taymor designed the show with realism in mind. "The Lion King is unique in that we see how the magic works on stage. There's no attempt to cover up the wheels and cogs that make it all happen. The human beings that control the puppets and wear the animal masks are fully seen. As an audience member ... you have an important job: With your imagination, you are invited to mix the 'animal' with the human into a magical whole," she has said about the show.
Taymor and puppet expert Michael Curry created the animals using more than 230 puppets and African masks, representing more than 25 species. The masks used by the actors playing major characters Mufasa, Scar, and Simba are worn over the head instead of over the face. The permanently carved faces give audiences a preview of the character's identity but do not hide the actors' facial expressions, thereby fusing human characteristics and animal qualities.
The introduction of every new character or animal group seems to surpass those before them. Simba's childhood friend and future wife, Nala, parades onto the stage among other lionesses. Dressed in flowing spotted costumes and displaying clawing movements, the group portrays a hunting party. The intricate details of Taymor's work, including African beadwork, fabrics, and body armor, are also seen in representations of the jungle. Actors dressed as grass and flowers sway, open, and shut. Everything in the play has a spirit, even inanimate objects.
The Lion King is also a show of contrasts. The set design for Pride Rock, the home of Mufasa, Simba, and the other animals, is a staircase twisting from the ground with King Mufasa perched at its pinnacle and overseeing the land. The animal kingdom gathers at the foot in reverence. The Elephant Graveyard, home of Mufasa's foil, Scar, is represented by a collection of bones with Scar standing over his subjects, hyenas, down below. The lushness of Pride Rock and the desolation of the Elephant Graveyard represent the land's characteristics and reflect the two characters and their leadership.
In keeping with original elements of the film, the production includes the music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice that made The Lion King an animated favorite. Songs like "Hakuna Matata," "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" hit sing-along status for audiences. In addition, South African composer Lebo M and Hans Zimmer provided songs more apt for the stage production, such as Lebo's tribal chants.
By the end of the show and two curtain calls, audiences' emotions may be spent, but the play ends in true triumphant Disney fashion. The company has advertised the show with the phrase "You hope all nights in the theater will be like this," and it holds true. As one of nine cities on the U.S. tour, Memphis is fortunate to have this first-rate showing of an innovative masterpiece.
The Lion King runs through January 4th at The Orpheum.