Disney’s “The Lion King” still has a mighty roar.
Five years after its sold-out premiere engagement at the Schuster Center, this global phenomenon, winner of six 1998 Tony Awards including Best Musical and the season finale of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Premier Health Broadway Series, returns to Dayton to deliver its incomparable blend of atmospheric splendor and imaginative razzle dazzle. The latest national tour treads a delicate course (the energy level on opening night was surprisingly off-kilter), but it satisfies visually nonetheless bolstered by terrifically firm performances.
Gifted director/designer Julie Taymor certainly broke the mold devising “Circle of Life,” a mesmerizing, tear-jerking and applause-inducing procession of birds, elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses, zebras, and more revealing a key component to her marvelous vision. Stressing duality, particularly in the superb masks co-created by Michael Curry, she offers what she calls “the double event,” which enables the audience to see the characters as animal and human simultaneously. What a sight to behold! Her avant-garde pedigree also elevates the action from her clever use of shadow puppets to vivid moments of high drama (the wildebeest stampede) and emotional poignancy (the sight of lionesses in mourning).
Still, in a testament to the strengths of the story, this engaging if character-overloaded and awkwardly cutesy tale of a young lion’s struggle with doubt, insecurity and fear following the premeditated murder of his father resonates beyond the technical wizardry. Librettists Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi retain the charm and heartbreak of the original 1994 screenplay co-written by Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. An array of strikingly authentic and distinctive African-infused tunes from Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Taymor and Academy Award winner Hans Zimmer also seamlessly accent Elton John and Tim Rice’s original songs including the Academy Award-winning “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” In an attempt to make Act 1 tighter and breezier, “The Morning Report,” an upbeat but superfluous tune written for the stage version by John and Rice, remains cut as it was in the previous tour.
The very entertaining, roughly 50-member cast is uniformly strong. As the villainous Scar, Patrick R. Brown, approaching the role with a Rex Harrison, sing-speak sensibility, is deliciously sarcastic and vain. As Mufasa, the dynamic Gerald Ramsey, offering a moving rendition of “They Live in You,” is a comforting and dignified authoritarian. The delightful Mukelisiwe Goba wholeheartedly embraces the show’s flavorful African essence as kooky, wise shaman Rafiki. Aaron Nelson brings warmth and conviction to his portrayal of the spirited, soul-searching Simba, particularly in his tender rendition of “Endless Night.” Nick Cordileone (Timon), Drew Hirshfield (Zazu), Ben Lipitz (Pumbaa), Keith Bennett (Banzai), Tiffany Denise Hobbs (Shenzi), and Robbie Swift (Ed) provide witty comic relief, especially Cordileone and Hirshfield who find refreshing new avenues to explore within the silliness. Nia Holloway (Nala) nearly stops the show with her heartfelt interpretation of the gorgeously evocative ballad “Shadowland.” BJ Covington and Savanna Fleisher respectively provide spunk and sass as Young Simba and Young Nala, roles shared by Julian Rivera-Summerville and Imani Pullum.
In addition to Taymor’s astonishing costumes, a particularly radiant explosion of color in “One by One,” Richard Hudson and Donald Holder respectively supply a truly magnificent set and lighting design. In fact, over 700 lighting instruments were used to create the show’s lighting plot. Garth Fagan’s crisp, exuberant choreography effortlessly captivates. Music director Rick Snyder leads a solid orchestra featuring percussionists Stefan Monssen and Reuven Weizberg.
Seen by more than 85 million theatergoers worldwide and blessed with stagecraft that will leave you breathless, “The Lion King” is an extraordinarily eye-catching spectacle unlike any other. Don’t miss it.
Disney’s “The Lion King” continues through July 3 at the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton. Performances are Tuesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Act One: 70 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $25-$157. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com.