Thanks to a friend who stood in line at 7:00 am on the day tickets went on sale, I saw The Lion King Broadway musical at the Orpheum Theater last night. We had great seats, too--in the middle balcony, toward the center, with a fantastic view of the stage and the aisles (which often had animals coming or going along them). The costumes and sets were amazing. Three-quarters of the fun was in observing the construction of the masks and props.
An adult elephant was operated by four actors, one in each leg. Birds were kites swooping around at the ends of long whip-poles. Giraffes were actors with stilts on both their arms and legs. A friend and I are divided on the cheetah--I thought it was cool, he thought it was goofy--but the back half of the animal was operated like a costume on the actor’s legs, while the front half was operated like a puppet (by the same actor, of course). When it groomed or stretched, it seemed wonderfully catlike, although, as my friend said, “The cheetah’s coming out of his crotch!”
The Scar mask in particular impressed me. Most of the time, it seemed to rest upon the actor’s head like a hat, the same as the other lion masks. But the mask was hinged on a support bar that rose from the actor’s back, and when crouched, the mask would swing forward, beautifully evoking a lunging lion. The Mufasa mask was likewise hinged, but I think the actor who played Scar was more skilled in using the trick. It was neat when Mufasa did it, but shivers-down-the-spine when Scar did.
I never liked the hyena costumes, though. While I was able to see giraffes as giraffes and lions as leonine humans, the hyenas were just so misshapen that I was never able to either get “hyena” or “human-as-hyena” into my brain. Every time I saw them, I got stuck on “monstrosities.” And with Zazu, due to the particular costume worn by the puppeteer, I was never able to get past “minstrel show.” Also, the back half of Pumbaa’s body was a series of concentric bands with gaps between them--probably for weight--but the effect made him seem like a skeleton.
The sets were very dynamic, with some pieces moving through mechanical means and others through costuming. When I first saw actors dressed as patches of grass, I thought it looked silly. But the way they moved in relation to the animal puppets really worked well. The end effect was very cool. And the elephants’ graveyard, with its massive curving tusks and ribcage staircases, was simply awesome. (Well, actually, there was nothing simple about it.) In another scene, the river was a tube of semitransparent, illuminated blue cloth with fish puppets swimming through it--exquisite. Elsewhen, the wildebeest stampede perfectly merged props and actors to convey the most magnificent illusion of a stage many miles deep.
The first act seemed to follow the movie very closely, but the second act, without changing any established plot elements, added to the story. Simba was much more introspective than in the movie, and Nala had more motivation beyond mere hunger for abandoning the other lionesses and leaving Pride Rock. And Rafiki stole any scene she was in. The initial surprise in the gender-change of the character from was quickly erased by the actress’s amazing voice and physical prowess. She captured the essence of her character perfectly.
Several songs have been added. Some, like Zazu’s “Morning Report,” I could gladly have done without. However, the songs by Lebo M, which seemed to be arrangements of his works from the old Rhythm of the Pride Lands album, were wonderful and greatly enriched the show. Gotta love that full African chorus with its heart-shaking vocal power.
Between different voices, different instrumentation, and different visuals, the classic Lion King songs also had very different flavors. In some cases, this worked well--this rendition of “Circle of Life” brought tears to my eyes, it was so beautiful. On the other hand, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was just disturbing. Perhaps I’m biased, because I never liked that song to begin with, but the background dancers were so surreal and distracting that it reminded me too much of the Mackerras version of Leos Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen (which, I expect, probably only one person reading this blog has seen--hi, Mom).
Overall, this was a visual feast beyond the scale of anything I’d ever seen before. Both thumbs way up.
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