Review: The Lion King

After 15 years, <em>The Lion King</em> still reigns supreme

Even if you’ve already seen The Lion King, playing now through February 12 at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, you’ve never seen anything else quite like it. Even after 15 years, it remains utterly original.

That’s by design, of course. Director Julie Taymor has never made the same show twice. In fact, she never makes the same show that someone else did, either, whether in film (Frida, Across the Universe) or on stage (The Tempest, The Green Bird). After four decades, that’s gotten her into the Spider-man mess, trying to mount the most expensive and elaborate show ever on Broadway. But that’s Taymor, the Icarus of directors.

In the 1990s, when she created The Lion King musical for Disney, she hadn’t yet gotten burned by her own ambition—she was golden. And from the opening number, in which an ark’s worth of African animals are paraded onstage through the audience courtesy of ingenious puppets, you’re in a visual fantasy that makes almost all other musicals, except her own, seem unambitious.

The creatures, from hyenas to lions to giraffes, are puppets in name only: half-inhabited by actors and operated by carefully placed pulleys, they’re as much machine as paper and paint. They create, in their otherworldly animation, a sense of watching something other than actors—an elaborate wind-up machine that plays out over 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Yet there’s nothing flashy or high-tech about it. Part of the charm is manufactured by thoughtful and mechanical stagecraft: a wildebeest stampede that appears to stretch into the horizon by means of a scrolling canvas full of tiny painted animals, fronted by actors with small masks then larger masks. Taymor makes every art director who thought to amp up a show with video projection or other high-tech wizardry seem both lazy and needlessly complicating.

To say that The Lion King is a mostly visual experience isn’t incorrect—or a slight. The music, by Elton John, and the acting, by a very large cast of veterans (some, including the actor who plays Mufasa, have been with the show, in one way or another, nearly since the beginning), are sublimated to the art direction and choreography. This was also by design. Taymor eschewed the predominant Andrew Lloyd Webber model, drawn from opera, of a largely sung show tied together by snippets of dialogue. Instead, she created a largely spoken and danced show, tied together by music. There are few tunes you’ll be humming afterwards, but you won’t get the masks and movement out of your mind.

Of course, you may have seen this all before: in 2007, when The Lion King last came through town, or perhaps in 1997, when it was created at the Orpheum as Disney’s first foray into Broadway musicals. (If so, you may be among those snapping photos of themselves in front of the marquee or anticipating every set piece.) If you were young then, you may wonder whether the magic will still move you. It should. For anyone appreciative of what humans are capable of, this spectacle provides the visual evidence. Unless you are a hyena, subsisting on the scraps of others, you will be inspired to create more magic in your own life and work, as well.

The Lion King
Through Sunday, February 12
Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-339-7007