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Simba, Turn Off the Dark by Matthew Murray

  • LionKing1.jpgWith the world-class drubbing Julie Taymor has taken over the last year as a result of her participation in—and subsequent ejection from—Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that she's actually a first-rank artist. But when you visit her magnum opus, the show that has lined her pockets quite handsomely for nearly 14 years and will likely do so well after that web-slinging musical has closed, it doesn't take long to remember why she ascended to the top. Upon my recent viewing of Disney's The Lion King at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, where the musical will wrap up its two-and-a-half-year run on December 30, I realized that you only need about 90 seconds.

    That's when a golden, wing-spanning sun begins to fold slowly upward from the stage, while against a field of sunrise orange two solemn giraffes slowly stalk across the playing area, enrapturing you immediately. Add in a cheetah, rhinoceros, elephant, herds (yes, plural) of leaping gazelles, and birds that soar in confident circles above the action, and as you witness the relentlessly tribal presentation of the new lion prince, Simba, by his father, Mufasa, you are seeing so intensely, unapologetically theatrical that it becomes more real than reality itself.

    This number, "Circle of Life," long ago became attached to the show as its moment of greatest triumph, and not without reason. The Elton John music is guttural and majestic, but forgettable; and Tim Rice's lyrics are easily lost in the tumult. (The same is essentially true of the many other songs on which they collaborated as well.) But it draws you in to a time, place, and people (for want of a better word) that you can find absolutely nowhere else. It is, to use Richard Wagner's silver-dollar term, six minutes of sublime Gesamtkunstwerk that even a stonehearted, cynical critic like me cannot help but adore.

    The book, Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi's halfhearted Hamlet revamp, about Simba's uncle, Scar, who kills Mufasa, sends Simba away, and rules in his place, is at best incidental (and has been as far back as the original 1994 film). A slew of changes implemented within the last year or so, which involved the deletion of the song "Morning Report" and a number of other nips and tucks, have streamlined things but not aided the drama much. And though the actors I saw are all giving committed performances—Derrick Williams is a warmly paternal, if not quite imperial, Mufasa; Thom Sesma brings a zesty bored diffidence to Scar; Zaire Adams and Jelani Remy as Simbas both cub and adult are likeable with the properly tragic undercurrents; Phindile Mkhize, an understudy, was fine as the mischievous baboon shaman Rafiki; and Kissy Simmons is all daring sauce as the adult Nala, who's destined to become Simba's own queen—it remains a show that's not really actable in the traditional sense.

    LionKing2.jpgThat's because Taymor has made the staging itself a character and actor far more compelling than any you could possibly find in the program. A raft of grass headdresses become the grasslands through which an anxious baby Simba trails his proud father. Spinning models and a line of a masked dancers transform the stage into a deadly antelope stampede. The stars themselves seem to come to life to pierce Simba's soul and remind him of who he is and what his role in the cycle of animal existence must be. Puppets, of the hand, head, and shadow varieties, expand the reach of the menagerie beyond what even the most enterprising zookeeper could envision. Richard Hudson's sets, Taymor's own costumes, masks, and puppets (the latter two designed with Michael Curry), and Donald Holder's lights effortlessly establish the African savannah anew every time the playing area is lit.

    This is magic, and it should not—and must not—be discounted. It's what Taymor does and always has, it's what made The Lion King worth doing onstage (and is, undoubtedly, a major contributor to its stunning longevity), and it demands your trust and respect even if—perhaps especially if—the book and the score don't do much to deserve it themselves.

    It's also what made her both the ideal choice for Spider-Man and its greatest enemy: With Taymor involved, the new show was always going to be art. After all, if she could make Disney's family pulp into a stage show possessing beauty sufficient enough to reduce hardened adults to tears, wouldn't doing the same with the populist action of a comic-book superhero be just as great an achievement?

    That things didn't work out says far more about how theatre has changed in the last decade and a half than it does about Taymor. And, whatever damage Spider-Man has done to her career or her reputation will deservedly boil away in the light of a visual and emotional spectacle the likes of which even better-written Broadway musicals are almost invariably incapable of matching today. A single look at The Lion King will remind everyone of who Taymor is, what she's capable of, and why she's a talent that must still be taken seriously. History will leave Spider-Man covered with cobwebs, but The Lion King is something that it—and you—will never be able to forget.

    Photos by Joan Marcus. The Lion King is playing through December 30 at the Mandalay Bay Theatre at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. For tickets or additional information, click here.

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