It has been more than 20 years since the stage version of The Lion King roared onto Broadway, and its chief shortcoming has always remained the same: It puts the 10:30 number at 7:30. The opening, when the baboon Rafiki chants a call to the animals of the jungle and the theater is slowly filled with magnificent costume appliances — men and women convincingly portraying abstracted embodiments of giraffes, elephants, gazelle, birds — is a parade worth of Thanksgiving Day, all to the pulsing beat of the song “Circle of Life.” It ends with a pounding drum beat and sudden blackout, and the audience erupts into paroxysms of approval.
Where do you go from there?
As it turns out, next comes the usual task of telling a story, and the story had never been the strong suit of The Lion King. It is basically a retread of Hamlet, with the young lion cub Simba (played as a young man by Jared Nixon and as a boy by a rotation of three actors) in self-imposed exile and guilt, following the murder of his father Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) by his Uncle Scar (Mark Campbell). It’s Disney, so the good guys win in the end. But really it’s just a forum for director-costume designer Julie Taymor’s eye-popping use of human props: muscular men in body suits portray grasslands (yes!), the lions’ faces are like crowns that move to intimidate opponents; a stampede combines shadow puppetry, cartoons and humans to put you in the thick of things. It’s all great.
Well, mostly. This touring production is as entertaining as ever, though most of the non-movie songs are pretty humdrum, and even the Oscar-winning hit “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” fails to connect (it has always been a disappointing button to Act 2). But who doesn’t enjoy the majesty and power of seeing modern theater breathe like this? It’s what stagecraft is all about.
— Arnold Wayne Jones
At Fair Park Music Hall through July 7. DallasSummerMusicals.org.