Wookiee Hut Live Musical Theatre Reviews presents:
The Lion King
The Broadway Musical
Review by Rosie, ThePlazaQueen, PandaCat, MaceVindaloo, Diana, Farklempt

Director: Julie Taymor

Venue: The New Amsterdam Theatre, Broadway, NYC

Rating: Death Star (explosive!)

Uh ... Ah ...

Duh ... Hmmm ... Oh ...

Oooh ...

Excuse our apparent catatonia ... We know it seems like a strange way to begin a review that gets a Deathstar rating, but ... this show simply rendered us speechless! It's a few weeks since we saw it ... and only now can we start to describe what we experienced!

Normally, a successful Broadway production will be adapted for the screen. The Sound of Music, Camelot, South Pacific, and My Fair Lady are only a few of the many many examples of this progression from stage to screen. Victor/Victoria and The Producers made the journey in reverse from the movie screen to the Great White Way. Now The Lion King joins this select group of productions whose origin is the silver screen.

Disney had a real winner with this modern animated classic when it was released in 1993. In fact, The Lion King was the very first movie one Wooklet ever saw in the theater for her birthday. So special was this this film that it won Oscars for Both Best Original Score and Best Song and has become a much beloved classic spawning two sequels: Lion King 1 and Lion King II: Simba's Pride.

The Disney Corporation had made a significant investment in the revitalization of Time Square including repaving the streets (so the floats, handlers, and dancers of the Disney Electric Parade which was to come through wouldn't get damaged in the pothole-riddled roads!) and purchasing and renovating the New Amsterdam Theater. The theater now needed a show to put in there, when a huge stroke of luck struck them like a lightning bolt!

Julie Taymor has a lifetime in theatre arts, having traveled the world over before coming home to Broadway. She had the concept to create The Lion King as a combination of Indonesian puppet theatre, stylized African design motifs and dance movements, the award-winning soundtrack, distilled with all the joys of musical theatre. Michael Eisner, who is the favorite object of denigration by detractors, cannot be accused of not having guts — he okayed the project, and Ms. Taymor assembled a brilliant production team and cast. She had to remain true to the animated classic, but adapt it to the necessities of a stage production. She did it brilliantly!

The orchestra was not relegated to a pit as is traditional, invisible to the audience. They were located high above the stage in the front boxes of the balcony where they could be seen. One of the Hutties admired this "Africanese Surround-sound System" very much! The instruments also included highly decorated traditional-looking African drums and other percussion instruments and the musicians were costumed accordingly. (It did remind many of us of the now-defunct Magical Tiki Room in the old Disneyland, only here, the musicians are real and not animatronic.)

If you have even the slightest interest in some of the documentary programming on the Discovery Channel or the National Geographic Channel, you will recognize the stylized elements of traditional African dance, too. Ms. Taymor did of course take many creative liberties in crafting this masterpiece, but it all felt extremely "right" on execution.

One of the fascinating things about The Lion King is how the stage production and the film have affected one another. Of course, the film initially inspired the Broadway production, but the stage production also changed the film: One of the new songs written for the Broadway production was Zazu's Morning Report. It proved to be so popular that when the tenth anniversary special edition of the animated film was due to be released, the Disney team was called together to animate the song for inclusion in the movie.

There are also nods to the animated original, like the following: Zazu has a great line in I Just Can't Wait to be King, when he looks at the audience with a look of mock horror and sings something about "this wasn't in the cartoon!" It added to the performance, and judging from the laughter, everyone felt they were in on the joke.

Another challenge was how to adapt animated animal characters to the stage where live human actors would be portraying them. Taymor's familiarity with Indonesian shadow puppetry inspired the successful fusion of this form with the African motifs to create a unique theatrical experience. Stylized masks or whole puppets represented each of the characters were worn directly on the top of the actors' heads, or on, or in front of their bodies, keeping the actors' faces unobscured so their expressions could be seen and voices heard clearly. Their makeup evoked traditional tattoos and other body paint designs. Many of the characters and ensemble were required to manipulate puppets to represent the character or animal they portrayed. The actors playing giraffes and elephants even needed to master stilt walking. Gazelles leapt across the stage as one actor pushed a contraption with animal silhouette cutouts secured to geared wheels. Fabric birds on long poles winged their way around the stage. A herd of water buffalo came in different sizes — smallest at the back, largest at the front to create a sense of convincing perspective.

Taymor also used a concept seemingly adapted from traditional Japanese theater and puppetry, where the puppeteer and set changers are on stage and completely visible to the audience. They wear black and the audience is meant to use their imaginations to "erase" them from view. In the case of this production, Taymor's costume depicted the character in full, but the face of the actor was meant to convey the expressions that masks and costumes could not. Here, the audience is meant to use their imaginations to understand that the face of the character is simply the representation. The face of the actor is the "real" part of the character, and it totally works. It also draws the audience into the experience, requiring them to actively and mentally participate in the making of the scene. The result is enhanced enjoyment, and the audience members totally end up "owning" the experience. This is a huge contrast to the passive entertainments we all experience in movies and television, and a valuable eye-opener for everyone. And it's done so well that no one perceives it as anything but a great show!

Shows are often made or broken by the lighting effects. People don't realize that lighting will evoke a mood or set a scene, even if the stage is entirely devoid of sets or even actors. Shadows, the color and positioning of the light, how to create suspense — all of these are controlled largely by lighting. The lighting design here created the feel of vast savanna, the huddled protection of a cave, or the drama of the presentation on Pride Rock, or in the death of Scar. In movies, the director can pull a tight focus, or pan a scene; on the stage, the view is the same to the audience, and you need to utilize the space to tell the story. Light — alongside sets, costumes, staging, sound, music, actors — is used instead of camera tricks, and is the unsung hero of the production, especially here for the beautiful and skillful ways it's used.

One of the great things about live theatre is the actors can feel and hear the audience response, and their performances react in kind. When the audience "ooohs" and gasps, the actors are inspired to greater heights, night after night. We knew the performances are repetitions of what came before for the actors, but these men and women are true professionals, of a breed which relishes their place in the footlights in front of a live, paying audience. It truly felt fresh, as if they were doing it just for us, just for the first time. Yet it was well-rehearsed, well-choreographed and orchestrated. There was nary a glitch in the entire, perfect production.

The Oscars — the academy awards for films — are a big deal, but we all know they are politically based and often there is a lot of controversy surrounding some of the choices. Maybe because the Antoinette Perry Awards — a.k.a. the Tonys — are for a smaller community of Broadway productions, the feel here is more about honor and recognition for true accomplishments among your peers. In 1998, The Lion King won for Choreographer, Costume Design, Director of a Musical, Lighting Design, Best Musical, and Scenic Design. In addition, they were nominated for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Book (Musical), Orchestration, and Original Musical Score. A very impressive collection of honors, and totally deserved!

For some of us this was not only the first trip to the Big City, but also the first opportunity to see a Broadway musical on the Great White Way. The touring version of this show had played a few weeks before at home, but we didn't have a chance to see it because the whole run sold out so quickly. The traveling shows are great, and locally produced shows can be great, too ... but there is nothing to match the quality, energy, sparkle and mystique of a show on Broadway. We were thrilled that our hosts knew how to get great seats to this phenomenal show in its original venue, and we will happily return to "Give Our Regards to Old Broadway" any time we get the chance!

Images from Original Broadway Cast program, published by Buena Vista

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