The Lion King roars back into Baltimore

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Carol Sorgen

Disney’s dazzling musical The Lion King is in residence at the Hippodrome Theatre until Jan. 8. I can understand how the many youngsters in the audience opening night might never have seen the stage production before, but I’m not sure how I have managed to miss it all these years.

All I can say is, better late than never. And whether you have seen it before or not, it is well worth a look.

Brilliantly colored African garb, lifelike masks and jaw-dropping puppetry create magic on the stage and bring the savannah to life.

The score features music by Elton John and Tim Rice with music that blends American popular song with African rhythms. Songs include the popular, Oscar-winning “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and “The Circle of Life.”

Journey to the throne

For the handful of people who may not be familiar with either the Broadway musical or the movie on which it is based, the simple plot revolves around Simba, son of Mufasa, the Lion King. Mufasa’s brother, Scar, resents Simba, since he has replaced him as next in line for the throne.

Time passes, and Scar has been plotting the deaths of his brother and nephew. Scar orchestrates a stampede and manages to kill Mufasa. He convinces Simba that Mufasa’s death was Simba’s fault and urges him to run away and never return. Scar orders that Simba be killed, but the hyenas charged with the task decide to let him go instead.

The remaining animals in the Prideland mourn the loss of their king and believe that Simba has been killed as well. Scar appoints himself ruler of the land.

In the meantime, Simba, convinced that he is responsible for his father’s death, runs away, eventually finding a new home with Timon, a wisecracking meerkat, and Pumbaa, a big-hearted warthog.

In the ensuing years, Scar’s heartless rule leads to devastation of the animals’ land, with starvation just around the corner. Simba’s childhood friend, Nala, now a young lioness herself, runs away from Scar’s rule (and his intentions of making her his bride), and stumbles across Simba.

When they recognize each other, she tells him he must return and assume his rightful position as king. Still feeling guilty over his father’s death, Simba at first refuses, but eventually follows Nala back to his homeland. A battle with Scar ensues, Scar dies, and Simba assumes the throne.

This being based on a Disney film that preceded the Broadway production, neither the simplicity of the story nor the happy ending can hardly be a surprise.

But if the fairy tale plot is easy enough for a child to follow, it also carries enough messages of love, hope and perseverance in the face of despair to resonate with audiences of any age.

Though Baltimore audiences may not be familiar with the show’s actors, that’s not a cause for concern. The performers are uniformly strong, from J. Anthony Crane as the devious Scar to Dionne Randolph as the great warrior Mufasa, Jelani Remy as the lion prince Simba, and Syndee Winters as the loyal lioness Nala.

Special effects star

But it is the costumes and stagecraft that makes The Lion King such a spectacular...well, spectacle without ever trying to deceive the audience.

There is no attempt to cover up the wheels and cogs that make it all happen. The actors who control the puppets and wear the masks atop their heads are fully seen. In short, the audience is invited to blend the animal with the human.

As Julie Taymor, director of the original production, explained, “When the human spirit visibly animates an object, we experience a special, almost life-giving connection. We become engaged by both the method of storytelling as well as the story itself.”

From the gasps of admiration from the wide-eyed kids to the almost as unbelieving adults, it is evident that The Lion King has lost none of its mesmerizing appeal since it first opened on Broadway in 1997 and earned six Tony Awards. The play has also earned more than 70 other major arts awards and it’s easy to see why.

The Lion King last played in Baltimore in 2005. If you missed it then, do yourself a favor and catch it this time around. You won’t be sorry.

Ticket prices start at $25 and are available at the Hippodrome Theatre Box Office and Ticketmaster outlets, by calling Ticketmaster at (410) 547-7328), or online at www.broadwayacrossamerica.com. For a complete listing of performance dates and times, log on to www.ticketmaster.com.