Review: The weirdest ‘Lion King’ critique you’ll read on the savanna
We interrupt this regularly scheduled laudatory and thesaurus-busting review of “The Lion King” (should the first adjective be clever, groundbreaking, spectacular or extraordinary?) to bring you this special bulletin:
We found a critic who didn’t love the show!
We go now, live, via Skype audio — the savanna doesn’t have very good reception — to a cave in the elephant graveyard. That’s where the critic is holed up after being chased into it by a steamed Mufasa. (The Act 1 version, not the Act 2 archetypal paternal ghost.) Hello, can you hear us?
Pictured above: Gerald Ramsey plays Mufasa in the national tour of ‘The Lion King.’ Photo: Broadway in Fresno
DONALD: Yes, I can, barely. It’s a little hard because of the squealing hyenas.
ANNOUNCER: Let’s get quickly to the point. Is it true that you sat down and prepared to write a theater review in which you confess that you — and I quote — got a little bored? At “Lion King,” the much anticipated musical that took 21 years to get to Fresno?
DONALD: Well, yes. But I want to temper that by emphasizing that I totally appreciate director Julie Taymor’s artistry and just how doggone extraordinary — there’s one of those thesaurus words — her concept and design for the show is. There’s a reason it’s been playing for 21 years on Broadway, and it’s entrancing for children. But this national tour just didn’t spark emotionally very much for me. Yes, I spent much of the evening impressed. But it was more like the detached, methodical kind of being impressed that you experience, say, when you think about how cool it is that BART goes under the Bay. I admired the show, but I didn’t much feel it.
ANNOUNCER: (Sputtering): But … the graceful antelope endlessly leaping across the horizon! The miniature lions bounding across the miniature grasslands! The way Pride Rock moves both with the speed of a jaunty cruise ship and the hulking menace of the Death Star! And … the giraffes! We can’t forget the giraffes! How could you experience “The Circle of Life” and not weep, or at least buy a $3,000 souvenir in the lobby at intermission?
DONALD: Again, I liked all those things. They’re fun. And they’re — I wish I had wireless so I could use my online thesaurus — innovative, creative, ingenious and, um, dexterous! (I got one bar for just a moment.) Taymor’s mashup of the avant-garde and the commercial is, I give you, absolutely brilliant. So is her embrace of what I consider the analog vs. the digital. The famous wildebeast stampede is so clever (darn, I already used that) and effective without using computer-generated graphics. And the ethereal Mufasa scene when his big puppet-mask of a head comes together, shrouded in trippy lights, is another inspired moment. Finally, I really appreciate Taymor’s use of perspective and scale, which enhances the theatricality of the experience.
ANNOUNCER: It sounds you really liked parts of the show. Why not just jump in and give it a rave?
DONALD: Part of it was this production itself. The parade of animals at the beginning is very fun, but because of the Saroyan’s configuration, the actors had to stick to the extreme sides of the auditorium rather than parade down interior aisles. That’s not the fault of the show, of course, but it did have an impact. Other things didn’t feel as sharp as they should have been. The lionnesses, for example, were a bit sloppy in terms of dancing in unison. So, too, were a few of the male ensemble numbers. (Hey, it’s the national tour. I want to see movements as crisp as the professional ballet companies that perform at the Saroyan.) And was that inflatable piece of jungle vegetation supposed to deflate like that in the middle of a song? Finally, I’ve always thought of Saroyan’s stage as plenty big, but something about this show makes it feel too small. The actors — um, animals — looked crammed together up there at times, particularly when a majority of them are hyenas.
ANNOUNCER: How about the acting and singing?
DONALD: All fine and expected, in a plug-it-in-the-Disney-formula kind of way. Salahedin Safi makes a rascally and endearing Young Simba. As the grown-up Simba, Jared Dixon certainly has the chops. Spencer Plachy appropriately chews the scenery as the evil Scar. Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), Timon (Nick Cordileone), Nala (Nia Holloway) and Zazu (Greg Jackson) all deliver. Oh, and I’d better say something nice about Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey), especially because he’s outside this cave waiting to turn me into dessert for the buzzards. Yes, there’s a nice life-and-death cycle of nature thing going on, and I appreciate that these animals actually eat each other (well, they do in one stylized and beautiful moment, but they seem to refrain from chowing down on each other the rest of the time), which is a very un-Disney theme to carry through. Then again, when you’re top of the food chain, as the lions (and humans) are, it’s easy to praise the system. Still, the stellar singing and acting doesn’t change the fact that the plot is actually pretty simple, and a lot of the show feels padded.
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ANNOUNCER: Speaking of which, anything else to say? I’m told the hyenas are getting impatient.
ANNOUNCER: Outside. Once this interview is over, they’re ready for you.
DONALD: But what about Mufasa?
ANNOUNCER: He’s gone already. Off to the States to sign a new promotional deal. He’s going to be hawking Mufasa Breath Mints exclusively through Wal-Mart. Any last words?
DONALD: I guess it was a nice run as a theater critic while it lasted. “Circle of Life,” here I come.