March 23 2009 12:00 AM

The spectacle of life


The ambiance in the theater is electric; little kids bouncing in their chairs like they’re sitting on fire ants, adults restraining their grins, people who grew up on Disney’s animated “Lion King” movie mouthing the words (or what they think are the words, because truthfully, everyone makes up that beginning part of "The Circle of Life") to the chant awakening the African savanna.

Seeing the creatures from the movie come to life is remarkable (almost creepy) as they look and sound identical to their 2D, animated counterparts.

Bad-guy lion, Scar (Timothy Carter), avian royal assistant, Zazu (Tony Freeman) and the meerkat-warthog team of Timon (Mark Shunock) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz) are especially vibrant. The actors are so adept at the puppetry; one imagines them having a hard time taking off their outfits and leaving a piece of themselves in the dusty costume trunks. (On second thought, those costumes must get very hot and heavy by show’s end: it's probably a relief).

Even musical theater snobs who turn their noses up at grandiose commercialism and top 40 pop songs must admit that the opening of “The Lion King” is as impressive as live theater gets; costumes fused with dancers bring to life a lumbering elephant, a lithe lion and a statuesque giraffe. The music swells into the familiar "Circle of Life," and everyone's inner child is satisfied.

“The Lion King,” based on the 1994 Disney cartoon, features music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice and additional music and lyrics by Lebo M. Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer. This gigantic production won six Tony Awards in 1998, including for best musical and choreography.

With this touring production, there are no complaints with the cast’s dancing, singing or acting. Disney does not kid around (pardon the pun); these people are at the top of their profession. Some voices must be recognized as exceptional, such as Phindile Mkhize, as Rafiki, with her piercing behemoth of a sound, and Dionne Randolph, as Mufasa, doing his best James Earl Jones impression as the proud lion.

This show is presented as musical theater, but in reality it is more like a Las Vegas show. Even with all the ingenious theatrical wizardry — the stampede of wildebeests and the glowing, heavenly head of a deceased Mufasa and the exuberant, difficult dancing and triumphant vocals belting out melodic pop songs — this show is just all right. It is over-inflated to make the audience forget that, even with the bells and whistles, the movie did it better.

Perhaps it's because we know what to expect, and each song and joke invokes a reflex of emotion that is already programmed within anyone who saw the movie. In any case, the kids will love it, and they should see it to be exposed to dance and be inspired by young performers (the actors playing young Simba and young Nala are wonderful, and will no doubt have long careers).

Will “The Lion King” stand the test of time compared to the groundbreaking dance of “West Side Story” or the sheer musical genius of “Into the Woods?” No, it won't. Still, for casual audiences, this show will suffice, if not thrill. For theater snobs, save your money, rent the movie and whisper your criticism to the wind. Or better yet, draw it on a tree.

‘The Lion King’
Through April 19
7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday
8 p.m. Friday
2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday
1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday
The Wharton Center
1 (800) WHARTON