Hail the King

May 5, 2004 at 12:00 am

First, a few confessions.
At 47 years old, I’ve never before been to a Broadway show. That’s an embarrassing admission to make, but it must be noted so that you know from the outset that this reviewer’s frame of reference isn’t exactly broad.

Second, the only reason this reviewer now dons a critic’s mantle is that his 14-year-old daughter had a desire to see The Lion King, and at $140 for a pair of prime tickets on the aisle down front, she would have been waiting for a long time if he hadn’t agreed to write this review. (Tickets for the show at Detroit’s Masonic Temple Theatre start at $17.50.)

That said, believe me when I say The Lion King is a mind-blowing experience. It’s not exactly a news flash. The show won six Tony awards in 1998, including best musical, so its credentials are well established.

The story is certainly familiar to anyone under the age of 20 — or with a kid under the age of 20 — for you’ve certainly seen the movie version of the Disney megahit that preceded its Broadway incarnation. And even for those who somehow never saw the animated flick, the story is a familiar one. It’s rehashed Hamlet, essentially, with the king’s malevolent brother committing regicide, killing his kin to take the throne and setting the stage for the dead monarch’s son to exact revenge. There’s also some Joseph Campbell Hero with a Thousand Faces stuff at work, with the young prince cast off into the wilderness alone, facing life’s dangers and discovering his true nature as he makes the mythic transformation from adolescent into man.

Likewise, the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice were long ago burned into this reviewer’s brain (although the stage version does have several new songs that weren’t included in the movie, and a pair of percussionists high in each wing providing a distinctly African feel that never truly materialized on the big screen).

What’s truly impressive in this stage production is the creative brilliance — and there’s no hyperbole here — behind the costuming. It is apparent from the moment the play opens as a parade of animals makes its way down the aisles and onto the stage. The real star of this show is director-designer Julie Taymor, a 1991 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship commonly known as a “genius” grant, who has also directed the films Frida and Titus.

In this case, Taymor’s genius is on display in the myriad ways she is able to create the illusion of an animal world without obscuring the human element. This is accomplished in part by what might be described as a kind of anthropomorphic puppetry. In fact, it could be that The Lion King is the most elaborate puppet show ever staged (although this reviewer must confess that, with a knowledge of puppetry that doesn’t extend much beyond “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” that could be somewhat of an overstatement.)

What is amazing are the multiple ways Taymor and co-designer Michael Curry achieve the effect. With more than 200 puppets populating the show, she draws upon various traditions, including Japanese Banraku puppetry (featuring visible puppeteers) and Indonesian shadow puppets (projecting shadows against a backdrop). (Note: This reviewer has no direct knowledge of such esoteric traditions and has gleaned this information directly from a professionally prepared press packet.) The result is extraordinary: Kite-like fabric birds flutter as the reedy poles they’re tied to are twirled; an actor with stilts attached to hands and feet portrays a giraffe; another actor, standing erect, forms the haunches of a savanna cat with her legs while using poles attached to her costume’s front legs to create the impression of a prowling predator; the bird Zazu, a sort of majordomo providing much comic relief, is a hand-held puppet manipulated by an actor dressed as a minstrel; Timon, the meerkat, appears to be freestanding. It goes on and on like this, one innovation after another.

Masks are also employed, but not in the usual sense. King Mufasa and his evil brother Scar both feature exquisitely carved headpieces depicting the faces of lions done in the African tradition. But these headpieces are attached to the actors in such a way that, with the use of cables hidden in their sleeves, they can suddenly become masks obscuring the actors’ faces. This is combined with a minimalist set that uses lighting as well as fabric and other materials in innovative ways. At one point, dancers with headpieces of tall grass create a windblown savanna. The overall effect of the production is wondrous.

In the aforementioned press packet (which this reviewer found indispensable in constructing this review) Taymor explains the reasoning behind her approach to the costuming this way: “When the human spirit visibly animates an object, we experience a special, almost life-giving connection. We become engaged by both the method of the storytelling as well as the story itself.”

This reviewer couldn’t have said it any better.

Father and daughter agree: The stage version of The Lion King is fantastic, in every sense of the word, verging on the magical.

Long live the king.


At Masonic Temple Theatre (500 Temple Ave., Detroit) through May 30. Call 313-832-2232 for tickets and information.

Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]