SALT LAKE CITY – The Lion King is playing at the Capitol Theatre. Director Julie Taymor has brought depth and sincerity in her stage adaptation of the simple yet enjoyable animated film. The amazing visuals, puppetry and music will coax the most fastidious patron to love the show.
The Lion King was a natural choice for Disney to bring to Broadway following its monumental success as an animated feature film. The story is based loosely on Hamlet, only with lions. Set in the African Savannah, this hit on the Great White Way racked up six Tonys in 1998 including Best Musical, Best Scenic Design for a Musical, Best Lighting Design for Musical, Best Choreography, and Best Direction of Musical. Each of those awards is worth noting because each of those awards recognizes an element of the production that is actually carried into the touring company. Salt Lake City really has a wonderful opportunity to see the best of Broadway on our local stage.
While the original film dealt little with the tragedy inherent in the story, director Julie Taymor has brought some much-needed development to the script. Her changes add depth and color to an already entertaining story. What’s more is her direction has clearly carried over into the design of the show, particularly in the costume, mask and puppet design. Over 200 puppets grace the stage including birds, hyenas, lions, zebras, giraffes (performers on two pair of stilts) and a life-size elephant manned by three puppeteers. The whole experience rarely resembles a Main Street USA performance and instead echoes more Asian theatrical practices.
The script itself does not escape the occasional corniness expected from a Disney film, but considering the attention that Taymor has brought to the entirety of the production we can trust those echoes of childish humor and structure must be her attempts to direct the performance at the whole family and maintain a sincere representation of the film while still moving forward with her original adaptation.
Particularly impressive were the performances of Brenda Mhlongo as the shaman baboon Rafiki, particularly in “He Lives in You.” Equally engaging and emotionally striking was Syndee Winters performance as the lioness Nala in “Shadowlands.” If only the male actors sincerity could have matched the sincerity and depth of these two women.
Dionne Randolph (Mufasa) and Adam Jacobs (Simba) delivered solid, but flat performances. Nick Cordileone (Timon) and Ben Lipitz (Pumba) were perhaps the two characters most directly translated from the film to the stage. Their performances met all expectations of the comedic duo.
Strongest of the male actors were Tony Freeman (Zazu) and J. Anthony Crane (Scar). Freeman’s puppetry and voice were incredibly engaging and Crane’s villain provided a strong sense of danger and tragedy to the piece.
Utah audiences have to see this production. It will blow you away. Design, music, acting, directing and story: it’s got it all.