Ok, now I get it. I REALLY get it. I finally understand what all the fuss was about when The Lion King first came onto the scene and everyone raved about Julie Taymor’s costume design. I couldn’t have possibly imagined the magnificence of this production without seeing it firsthand.
I have always tended to literally get the chills when a live production starts out on just the right note, and that’s exactly how things started off for me last night. With a call of ““Nants ingonyama! Bagithi baba!” (the loud chant you’ve probably heard in the commercials - and yes, I did need to look up the spelling), a procession of actor/puppets/animals begins parading down the aisles of the theater, converging on the stage for a spectacular opening number. From the start, there’s an immediate sense of the brilliant puppetry, costume design and mechanisms that bring this production to life.
Tall, lanky giraffes are played by actors using stilts on their legs and arms; an enormous elephant rambles down the aisle with a puppeteer in each leg; a cheetah’s back legs belong to an actor/puppeteer, and his front legs are being moved by a mechanism that he controls. Every animal is fascinating, and I found myself as interested in the mechanics of how things worked as I was in the music and dance. And here's where I insert a visual aid, to best explain what I can't really convey through words:
Julie Taymor was the original director and costume designer for The Lion King, which opened on Broadway in 1997. Rather than hide the actors in masks while they played the roles of animals, it was her idea to instead have the actors wear the masks on their heads, leaving their faces visible. And it was her vision to represent the animals using enormous, complex puppets, which are a big part of what makes this production so memorable.
Obviously I was blown away by the costume design and mechanics, but I can’t really review a musical without mentioning the music, right? The music and dance were fantastic. The African rhythms and dance were pervasive, and were infused with modern dance, ballet and contemporary music.
The story itself is about a lion cub named Simba, whose father Mufasa is king and whose evil uncle Scar decides that he wants the throne for himself. Scar plots with some hyenas and kills Mufasa, and when Mufasa gets into a tight spot during a stampede, Scar kills him off. Scar convinces Simba that it’s his fault his father died, and tells Simba to go away and never come back. Simba stays away, grows up spending time with the comedic duo of Timon and Pumbaa (a meerkat and a warthog), and he eventually comes back to settle the score. (It’s far more complicated than that, but that’s the gist.)
I must say, I was fascinated by the hyenas. There are three main hyenas, and they are creepy as hell and utterly fascinating to watch. The actors/puppeteers in these roles must walk around in a hunched position, while alternately using their arms to work the hyena legs and the hyena heads that are suspended out in front of their bodies. Their costumes are designed so that there’s an arch of fur reaching from their backs, into the air, and onto these suspended heads, pulling it all together and giving them the shape of a hyena. It’s amazing to watch them, and many of the other “animals,” realizing that these actors are doing the ultimate multi-tasking: singing, speaking, moving, and operating their “costumes” all at the same time.
Overall, I absolutely loved the show and it’s now on my short list of all time favorites.
The show is recommended for ages 5 and up, and this sounds about right since some of the subject matter could be a bit heavy for younger kids. There’s some violence, the hyenas are just plain creepy, and of course the death of Simba’s father could be a bit much for some kids. Kids will love the costumes and puppetry, the storyline will have them engaged, and the antics of the Timon and Pumbaa (including Pumbaa's gas issues) will have them laughing.
Playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through November 27.