Don’t let the Disney association or the kid’s movie version keep you away from the multiple Tony-winning musical “The Lion King,” in its triumphant return to Louisville. (It was last seen here in 2003.) It’s pure spectacle from start to finish. And its message — that by shirking responsibility (“Hakuna Matata”), the true king is cast out, and the hyenas take over — is one adults can’t hear often enough.
The plot is not important here, and you already know it anyway. It’s the age-old battle between good and evil, with the undying bond between father and son winning in the end. What grabs you is the spectacle, and spectacle is all you need for this incredible theatrical journey. As soon as the giraffes (humans walking on stilts in a perfect imitation of the beasts) paraded onstage during Saturday night’s preview show, something grabbed hold of me and didn’t let go. The show captures the deep-rooted history of humanity on a primal level, and its message of unity (“The Circle of Life”) is inspirational.
Avant-garde director Julie Taymor was renowned for innovative combinations of disparate cultures onstage. For example, in the 1980s, she mixed Kabuki, commedia dell’arte and New Guinea tribal masks in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Unlikely as it seems, Michael Eisner insisted that Taymor be the one to bring “The Lion King” to the stage. Taymor’s masks and puppetry design are rooted in the commedia dell’arte tradition yet modern in her larger-than-life execution. Most adept at working his puppet is Mark Shunock as Timon, the meerkat who turns Simba into a vegetarian. Mark Cameron Pow as King Mufasa’s sidekick (and comic relief), the British-accented bird Zazu, also melds seamlessly with his puppet. The cast is terrific overall, but Lexington native Timothy Carter stands out as Simba’s scheming Uncle Scar, with his stentorian voice and agile physical contortions. He wields his mask as a weapon, snapping it forward and backward while arching his back menacingly.
The love scene between adult Simba and Nala is beautifully choreographed, with amorous couples dancing in the air around them. I thought of Maya Deren’s beautiful 1958 film, “The Very Eye of Night,” in which ballet dancers glide in space against a blanket of stars. Here, the stars are the souls of our ancestors watching over us below, as we gain the knowledge to become one with them in the endless flow of life, represented by the shimmering lights in the jungle — our beautiful kingdom.
Some of the songs border on the sappy, but the actors sing them so beautifully, it doesn’t matter. They touch the heart. My only complaint is that the amplified voices were distorted at times, due to the cavernous Whitney Hall. (Musicals are better without artificial amplification, but what are you gonna do in such a huge venue?)
Ticket prices are higher than most Louisville theatergoers are used to paying, but this eye-popping production is worth the price of admission. “The Lion King” is simply spectacular.
‘The Lion King’
Starring Timothy Carter, Dionne Randolph, Phindile Mikhize, Mark Cameron Pow, Mark Shunock, Dashaun Young, Erica Ash, Jeremy Gumbs and Chantylla Johnson. Directed by Julie Taymor. Music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice. Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi. Presented by PNC Broadway Across America. Continues through July 8 at the Kentucky Center. For tickets, call 584-7777 or 361-3100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.