By Dale King
Big city residents often lament: “It’s a jungle out there.”
Through May 5, audiences in Dreyfoos Hall at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts can shout: “It’s a jungle in here” as Disney’s The Lion King leaps onto the stage.
A mix of fantastic and fantasy, this awe-inspiring performance set amid the greenery and savagery of an African grassland bathed in the light of a massive red sun as an opening and closing backdrop visits Kravis for the first time. It concludes the showplace’s Broadway on Tour season.
After 21 momentous years, The Lion King remains one of the most popular stage musicals in the world. Since its premiere on Nov. 13, 1997, 25 global productions have been seen by more than 95 million people.
The breathtaking production that packed the Kravis Center on opening night combines the talents of the folks at Disney Theatrical Productions (under the direction of Thomas Schumacher) with the redoubtable talents of Julie Taymor. The show’s director, costume designer and mask co-designer, she is the first woman to win a Tony Award for Direction of a Musical, and has, in recent years, supervised new productions of the show around the world.
The masks for most in lead roles are attached to the top of the actors’ heads so their faces as well as their animal avatars can be identified. The masks do drop down to cover the face when the actors are being more “animalistic.”
Background performers are fitted with more stylized devices or puppet-style apparatuses, including bicycle-like equipment to create herds of running gazelles; stilts and neck extensions for giraffes and a vast amount of rigging and structuring for elephants. The stampede, critical to the plot, is artfully crafted in a manner that defies explanation. But it appears so real, and works so well in the show.
The musical is a very sweet love story between a father and son — Mufasa, the lion king at the start of the play and his son, Simba, who will succeed his dad. Later, we see and feel the love story of Simba, when he grows older, and his betrothed lioness, Nala.
The production features Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa, Nick Cordileone as Timon, Greg Jackson as Zazu, Tony Freeman as Pumbaa, Jared Dixon as Simba, Nia Holloway as Nala, Keith Bennett as Banzai, Martina Sykes as Shenzi and Robbie Swift as Ed.
The role of Young Simba is alternated between Richard Phillips, Jr. and Walter Russell III. The role of Young Nala is alternated between Brilyn Johnston and Celina Smith.
The show opens with Rafiki (Mukelisiwe Goba) singing “Circle of Life,” which summons a zoo-full of animals — mainly actors in body-puppet outfits — to the stage and culminates in a stunning living portrait against a full-stage, tissue-paper-like hot African sun. Such on-stage finesse is repeated a number of times in the show, at time threatening to draw too much attention away from the plot.
Scuttling what appears to be a “happily ever after” scenario is Scar, Mustafa’s evil brother, played with Oilcan Harry-style nastiness by Spencer Plachy. He colludes with the despised hyenas to kill King Mufasa and make it appear to be Simba’s fault. (Simba, at this point, is just a child).
The scheme goes off as planned. Scar pushes Mustafa off a cliff, unseen by others who think the king dies while trying to rescue his son from a stampede. Scar tells young Simba – who finds his father’s body — to run away – and he does. Scar takes over as king, and runs the animal savanna into ruin.
Simba ends up in a strange land where he meets Timon, a meerkat who cracks jokes and one-liners. (When Simba and Nala meet as adults and don’t recognize each other immediately, Timon quips: “I guess you’ve got your lions crossed.”) Also on board is Pumbaa, a purple warthog with apparently uncontrollable flatulence that engenders a series of jokes.
Nala finds Simba by accident, telling him the animals at home all think he was killed in the stampede – and Scar refuses to confess he did the dirty work. Simba is torn between leaving Timon and Pumbaa to face his accusers or stay and enjoy a new, unfettered life.
While Elton John and Tim Rice receive top billing for the music, 10 other songwriters chipped in. The resulting sound is a fusion of Western pop music and distinctive sounds and rhythms of Africa.
Garth Fagan creates the fine choreography, which must have been a chore for such a large cast.
The Lion King plays through Sunday at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Limited numbers of tickets are currently available by phone at 561-832-7469 or online at www.Kravis.org.