When it comes to national tours of successful Broadway musicals, there seems to be an unfortunate trend. The longer the tour runs, the more the cracks begin to show. Sets and costumes get scaled down, the quality of the cast diminishes as does the cast size, and the show itself becomes far less enjoyable. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, I'm guessing you didn't see the road shows of RENT or The Phantom of the Opera about five years into their tours.
The Lion King has miraculously bypassed much of this dismal circle of life, despite the fact that it has now traversed the country for over a decade. Though there have been a few modifications to the tour over the last few years (the set design is slightly simpler and some moments have been cut for time) The Lion King is still majestic, astonishing, thrilling, and thoroughly entertaining.
While the coming of age story of a young lion destined to be king may be incredibly simple (made even simpler by the lackluster book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, one of the show's few weak points), the way the story is told is remarkable. The songs by Elton John, Tim Rice, Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer range from the jazzy earworms and beautiful ballads of the original film to intricate African chants, all of which move the story along. While you may not leave the theater humming any of the tunes written specifically for the stage version, the way the music is incorporated into the visual storytelling is flawless.
Of course, it is the visual storytelling that is the most memorable. Under the elaborate and extraordinary vision of Tony Award winning director Julie Taymor, the show is incredibly colorful and eye-catching. As a side note, I must say that it's a shame her work on Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark is the career-ending stuff that injuries and lawsuits are made out of. I would love to see Julie Taymor return to Broadway with yet another musical hit. She is a true artist and visionary, and her talent must be shared with the world.
But back to The Lion King, the work of Ms. Taymor and her creative team is definitely the largest draw for the show. Their work turns the quaint Disney film into a cultural experience enriched by various art forms ranging from African dance, tribal rhythms, Chinese martial arts, and Indonesian puppetry. The set by Richard Hudson is fantastic, the lighting by Donald Holder is beautiful, and the costumes, masks, and puppets by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry are absolutely breathtaking. Rounding out the creative team is the severely underrated work of Tony winning choreographer Garth Fagan whose choreography is athletic, difficult, and elaborate. The only visual more dazzling than the collective work of the design team is the look of wonder and amazement that you'll see on the faces in the audience, particularly the little ones.
Still, as great as a show can be visually, it needs a strong cast to make it work. Without a talented company of actors, The Lion King can easily become a "highfalutin puppet show" as Gerard Alessandrini called it in his Forbidden Broadway revue. Thankfully, the national tour cast provides the show with emotion, power, and heart. This 50 person cast is the cream of the crop, and the large ensemble clearly has fun with the material. Of the supporting actors and leads, your children will probably respond most positively to the comedic and often slapsticky antics of the wildly talented Mark David Kaplan as Zazu, Rashada Dawan, Keith Bennett, and Robbie Swift as the trio of wicked hyenas, and Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz as the wisecracking Timon and Pumbaa.