Las Vegas Sun

January 21, 2018

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‘The Lion King’ brought to life

Stage version of the Disney film wows with sound and motion, color and characters


Leila Navidi

Buyi Zama performs as Rafiki, the mandrill griot and Greek chorus, clicking and popping and whooping her comments during a media run-through last week of scenes from the new production of “The Lion King” at Mandalay Bay. The show’s colorful scenery evokes jungles, rivers and deserts.

"The Lion King" at Mandalay Bay

A dancer representing birds performs during a media run through of selected scenes from the new production of Launch slideshow »

If You Go

  • What: “The Lion King”
  • When: 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, dark Friday
  • Where: Mandalay Theatre at Mandalay Bay
  • Admission: $53 to $168.50; 632-7580,
  • Running time: About 2 hours and 15 minutes with intermission
  • Audience advisory: Strobe lights, possibly scary hyenas and skeleton sculptures, Simba’s father d-i-e-s

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Las Vegas is about to be “Lion”-ized.

Before even taking measure of the uncompromised quality of “The Lion King” as a theatrical experience, it’s worth noting that the arrival of this Disney-produced musical on the Strip is significant. For however long it stays at Mandalay Bay — and it gives every indication of being able to stay for as long as it likes — the presence of this show is going to positively affect the cultural life of our city.

And by that I mean, this is a large company of prodigiously gifted, mostly African-American performers, artists and technicians, who are going to be living and working among us, and will find their way into the networks of the growing and emerging cultural life of our city. Welcome to all of them.

Constantly kinetic and radiantly colorful, “The Lion King” is a dazzling dramatic enterprise every bit equal but not necessarily comparable to any of the big five Cirque experiences.

Those with children will need no refresher on the story, which has been burned into millions of minds via endless DVD watchings of the 1994 movie or the still-touring 1997 musical. In the Pridelands somewhere in Africa, the philosophical lion king Mufasa presents his infant son and heir, Simba, to the assembled animal multitudes. Scheming to attain the throne, Mufasa’s jealous brother Scar cunningly tempts and tricks Simba and his young lioness friend Nala into dangerous situations and exile, culminating in the ultimate return of the king.

Although it’s based on a cartoon, this isn’t just kid stuff: Many of the great myths and legends, after all, have been told in story form accessible to all ages. Those who care to look deeper than the pageantry and broad comedy will find allusions to the hero’s journey, the avenging of the father and the making of the man. And as if we needed it, the disastrous effect of a bad ruler and the wide-reaching impact of a good leader.

“The Lion King” is beautifully and intelligently staged — this thing moves. Director Julie Taymor tells the tale using the shifting hues of the skies and savannas, the sun-streaked sounds and above all, the artistry of the performers and ingeniously evocative puppets.

Taymor pours her obvious love of international theatrical forms — unconventionally integrating conventions from Japanese Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku to Indonesian masked dance-drama and shadow puppetry — into simple-appearing scenes, telling her tale with elemental depth and wit.

The take-away for grown-up audience members is how manifestly beautiful this show is, like a radiantly illustrated children’s book filled with gorgeous, textured evocations of the jungles, rivers and deserts. Among the many unforgettable images are torn-paper horizons, the rising sun, ever-moving grasses, a mountain ledge spiraling up from the stage.

That’s the vision, then there’s the sound: The familiar songs by Elton John and clever lyrics by pun-gent lyricist Tim Rice are suffused with African melodic, harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities, with more than a bit of Broadway uplift.

The show’s signature is joyfully splintered harmonies, influenced by the African-European pop hybrid of Adiemus and Deep Forest. The 20-plus member pit orchestra ornaments the songs with delicate kalimbas and kotos, augmented by hand percussionists flanking the stage with congas, shakers and koto drums.

Disney cherry-picked its sterling Vegas cast — more than 50 strong — from international productions of “The Lion King,” and the company includes nine South African natives. Two ensemble members, Joseph Rivera and Renata Renee Wilson, are Vegas residents.

Outfitted with complex headdresses and makeup, the lead actors play close to the animated originals, with those instantly character-defining voices Disney specializes in.

As the big-hearted lion king Mufasa, Alton F. White is especially affecting in his tender roughhousing with his young son. The role of Young Simba is alternated between Duane Ervin and Elijah Johnson; I saw the latter on Friday night, and he was bouncy, irrepressible, bratty and adorable, a human Tigger.

Thom Sesma plays the villainous Scar with a love-to-hate-him sneer that’s more Tim Curry than Jeremy Irons in its fey malice. Clicking, popping and whooping her comments, Rafiki, the mandrill griot and Greek chorus, is played with buoyant good humor by native South African Buyi Zama.

There’s not space or time to mention all the standouts, but I particularly enjoyed Adam Kozlowski as the flatulent warthog Pumbaa, and Patrick Kerr, who brought affecting pathos and heroism to Zazu, the hysteric hornbill aide de camp to Mufasa. That’s not to mention the hilariously hideous hunchbacked hyena trio.

If success on the Strip was based on merit alone, there would be no question that “The Lion King” would enjoy a long reign at Mandalay. But whatever the show’s fate or fortune, Vegas comes out a winner, as this is an appreciable trade-up on its long-running predecessor “Mamma Mia!” in terms of quality, entertainment and value.

And though there’s little to be gained in comparing this manifestation to the Broadway or touring companies, it can be said that the Las Vegas “Lion King” experience, like our resident “Phantom,” benefits from a customized theater and all the artistic and entertainment and technological expertise of this town and Broadway and Disney combined.

This is the real thing. All hail “The Lion King.”

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