ABOVE: Gerald Ramsey is Mufasa in the North American touring company of The Lion King. Photo by Matthew Murphy ©Disney BELOW: The Lionesses dance. Photo by Deen van Mee ©Disney
This year for the holidays, BroadwaySF is giving us the equivalent of hot cocoa and nachos – comfort theater in the form of Disney’s The Lion King (now at the Orpheum Theatre) and Mamma Mia! beginning next week at the Golden Gate Theatre. The former has been around for 26 years and the latter for 24. While not exactly fresh, they’re reliable, enjoyable and, more to the point, beloved.
I last saw The Lion King about seven years ago at the Orpheum (read my review here), and the current tour feels sturdier in terms of performances and the overall production. It’s still a spectacularly beautiful show, and Disney has obviously invested in maintaining it at a high level. Other touring perennials (looking at you Les Misérables) seem to shrink in every way, making shortcuts (like too much video) and “reimagining” when they mean “reducing the budget.” But The Lion King is still mighty.
The weak tea Shakespearean book is never going to be one of my favorite musical comedy plots (it was fine for the animated feature, but the songs and spectacle could use more), but this King is all about director Julie Taymor’s ultra-theatrical production – a combination South African cultural festival, modern dance program (thank you, choreographer Garth Fagan) and phantasmagorical explosion of world puppet and mask traditions.
Taymor has blended her outsize theatrical vision with the more mundane aspects of the movie (comic relief, winky modern references, cardboard cutout bad guys) so that the 2 1/2-hour show moves expertly along, but it definitely feels like Taymor was way more invested in conveying the essence and beauty of African nature and wildlife than in the mechanics of storytelling.
There are two knockout numbers in Act 1, the processional, magisterial “Circle of Life” and the exuberant, dazzling “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” alongside the still-dazzling effect of a wildebeest stampede. Which leaves Act 2 rather barren of high points. The act opener, a straightforward human musical number called “One by One” is charming, and then we get the nearly great “He Lives in You (Reprise)” to close the show. Before the curtain calls, we get a reprise of “Circle of Life” and more amazing animals, but nothing really new other than plot resolution, and that comes way too easily and predictably (kind of like in a Marvel movie).
But here’s what’s so great about The Lion Knig – it’s easy to love for anyone of any age. For many kids, this is their first taste of live theater, and it’s sophisticated in its theatricality while still being easy to digest. There’s a darkness to it (stemming from a lot of death in the story) that sits easily alongside the brighter moments, and the inherent message about maintaining the balance of nature, is no small accomplishment.
In this touring company, special shout out to Julian Villela as Young Simba (sharing the role with Mason Lawason), a star in the making. Charming, assured and affecting, Villela commands the stage like an absolute pro. Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa also makes a strong impression, especially vocally on “They Live in You.” I tend to resist the cornball schtick of Timon and Pumbaa, but Nick Cordileone and John E. Brady respectively are pitch perfect.
On Broadway and around the world, The Lion King musical has reportedly raked in over $8 billion. That’s astonishing. But given the rapturous response of Wednesday’s opening-night audience, it’s not all that surprising. It’s well made, beautifully produced entertainment. It raised the bar for Disney’s theatrical pursuits, a bar the mighty Mouse still hasn’t surpassed.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Disney’s The Lion King continues through Dec. 30 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $66.50-$300.50 (subject to change). Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes (including one intermission). Call or visit broadwaysf.com.