Review: ‘The Lion King’ and his pride

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 Jelani Remy as the older Simba and the ensemble in the song 'He Lives in You' from 'The Lion King' national tour. (Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Jelani Remy as the older Simba and the ensemble in the song 'He Lives in You' from 'The Lion King' national tour. (Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus)

After seeing the opening Wednesday of “The Lion King” national tour at the Academy of Music, I can safely report that the circle of life remains intact.

“The Lion King,” on national tour, runs through June 14 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets.

After seeing the opening Wednesday of “The Lion King” national tour at the Academy of Music, I can safely report that the circle of life remains intact.

No, I’m not talking about the lions, birds, hyenas, giraffes and more depicted on stage in Julie Taymor’s remarkable theatrical spectacle that runs here about a month and plays nightly on Broadway and in six other countries. I’m talking about the audience.

There, at the Academy, I saw moms and dads, and some grandmoms and grandpops, too, many of them with little ones in tow, following every piece of the story they know well from the 1994 animated Disney movie — and maybe also from the stage musical, which includes additional songs by Sir Elton John (who could’ve been knighted for his work on this show alone) and Tim Rice. I saw young adults, in groups and in pairs, and some young parents, too: moms and dads who grew up with the movie, possibly playing over and over in their living rooms, when they were of a certain age.

And so the circle of life, so well represented in the show’s Pride Lands, where lion cubs eventually take over for lion kings, where history is written in the stars and in the reflection of faces, also lives in real life. Can you feel the love tonight? No question. This show is so universally loved, it didn’t even matter that the witty lyrics the hyenas sing were fully swallowed by the rotten acoustics the Academy of Music provides for amplified Broadway theater; you could hear, through parts of the show, the collective purr of tiny voices singing softly along around you. Kids – and I suspect many adults – don’t need a libretto to follow “The Lion King.” It’s in their heads.    

The 1997 show is as magical today as it was then, when it went on to win a best-musical Tony Award and five others. They could have created a seventh Tony for Most Effective Use of Aisles  — Taymor’s staging shows off her eye-popping animal costumes and puppets (designed with Michael Curry) from the start, as much of the cast walks through the theater and onto the stage – a parade signaling that something unusual and special will be happening here. It may be less unusual these days. But it’s still special.

That’s also clear from the first notes, in which the superb Tshidi Manye, as the truth-telling baboon Rafiki, stirs the audience and the jungle with a wake-up call to a new day, which she sings in compelling Swahili syllables. Here, credit goes to the South African composer Lebo M, plus Mark Mancina and Hans Zimmer – the three artists responsible for the African songs that breeze though “The Lion King” and give it such an authentic feel.

Mufasa, the Lion King himself, is played on the tour by L. Steven Taylor, and Cameron Pow is the right-hand bird who works for him. Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz are Timon and Pumbaa, the two colorful sidekicks who accompany Simba (Jelani Remy the older Simba) through the Savannah after his dad, Mufasa, perished in a stampede. Patrick R. Brown is Scar, the baddie uncle who chases Simba away from the Pride Lands and makes the young cub believe he’s responsible for his father’s death. Nia Holloway is Nala, Simba’s friend from cubhood. And those nasty, bumbling hyenas? They’re Keith Bennett, Jacquelyn Renae Hodges and Robb Sapp.

They all invest this “Lion King” with the spirit and talent it demands, along with the rest of the supporting cast. You don’t know whether to watch their faces or the masks they wear atop their heads, which are the faces of the animals. That little puzzlement underscores the perfect blend of acting and stagecraft here, and is all part of the magic.

 

“The Lion King,” on national tour, runs through June 14 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. 215-731-3333 or www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway

 

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