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APPRAISE of the Theatre: Disney's "The Lion King" at the N.A.C.

[Ken Godmere is an Ottawa-based freelance actor/director with 35 years experience and offers his theatre reviews as an unbiased professional appraisal. www.kengodmere.com]

* Opening Night, Saturday July 16, 2011 *

It’s big. It’s bold. And it’s blatant. The first few lines of credits in the programme read: Disney presents The Lion King. Music & Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice. Additional Music & Lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, Hans Zimmer. Book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi. Adapted from the screenplay by Irene Mecchi & Jonathan Roberts & Linda Woolverton. (Whew!)

Bringing a ‘classic’ Disney movie to the live theatrical stage poses two very big questions. Why? And how? Both magnified exponentially when the original film is animated and the characters are animals. Why would someone want to do a staged musical about animals? Although Cats has had a very long and successful run, my first point was going to be that it should have a strong story as a core. (And Cats didn’t. So go figure that one out. And then let me know.)

The Lion King‘s story is from Disney’s 1994 animated film of the same name, which is thematically from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and that was probably from some earlier fable or lore) — a Prince’s succession is sidetracked by his father’s death at his uncle’s hand. Okay, with a story to tell, art to create, and money to make, the next question is: how?

Julie Taymor. Her name is all over this show – Director, Costume Design, Mask/Puppet Co-design, and Additional Lyrics. Very well known for risky, novel creativity, Ms.Taymor tapped deeply into the roots of Africa for concepts, style, and story-telling. Strong and stirring. Creative and courageous. And costly. So the questions is, still, how?  Money. Who has more money than Disney? And it is their property. So now I have another question. Were they trying to bring the story to the stage? Or the movie? (Which is, to me, a dangerous mix and misuse of media.) Or are were they fighting to do both?

In the staged production I saw on Saturday night, there were several powerful plusses. The opening pageant of animals was truly moving. And magical, in seeing through the rough and raw mechanics to the humans living inside. Also profoundly apparent were the strong feelings of this cast of fifty creating a village of tribal story-telling with their puppets, shadows, dance, and colourful cultural costumes. Even the highly-technical and complex staging of the wildebeest stampede worked well because it was dramatically countered with the bare, simple, human moments between Simba, his fallen father, and his sinister uncle, Scar.

Where the production struggled and clashed with itself was, ironically, in some of those same areas. Spectacle often trumped spirit. Machine over human. Being. The masks and puppetry of key characters were inconsistent in extremes ranging from the lions’ simple head-top masks allowing them full access to motion and emotion; through the awkwardly distracting and varied versions of the hyenas; all the way to an exact replica of the movie’s cartoony Timon the meerkat, leaving his puppeteer walking awkwardly and separately behind him in floppy feet, green camouflage and face paint. These extremes were also reflected in staging and characterization. Some characters were allowed to grow in the story and in the evolution of the production with new scenes and songs for the scheming Scar and for the maturing Simba and Nala. But that growth and life were completely absent in the characterizations of Timon and Pumbaa which ended up being a strict and rigid parroting of the movie’s original cast soundtrack. Even delicate design choices of organic fabric leaves and plants were slammed with glaring kiddie-kitsch when two giant plastic inflatable plants were pushed onstage, then deflated to sagging as an illustration of the thirteenth Pumbaa fart joke.

With such a sprawling show, there are bound to be bald spots. And when the show is as big and busy as The Lion King, over-mechanized devices and cloying gimmicks and jarring irregularities can mortally wound the story and the heart of the show. This fighting between indigenous African story-telling and American Disney-factory fodder may simply be the timeless friction between the piece of art being painted and the wall of money it’s hanging on. (See Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway.) (I mean it. Literally. See it.)

Thankfully, there were also some individual spirited performances growing and glowing between the machines and the marketing. There were memorable notes in the performances of leading characters like Scar, Mufasa, Simba, and young Nala. But worthy of special mention were Buyi Zama’s playful charm and chants in the role of the mystical Rafiki. And Syndee Winters, who brought it all together, acting, singing and dancing (and fighting) with power, grace, and that “something else” in the way of believing and discovering it all as new. I would also like to spotlight the actor who played young Simba on opening night (no programme indication whether it was Niles Fitch or Zavion J. Hill). For a performer with smaller stature, age and experience on this big stage in a big show with big players to find real moments to be present and to believe (in a way few “Disney Channel actors” can or do), his character earned my sentiments; and his “character” earned my respect.

 

There is something deep in Disney’s The Lion King as it takes us on a spectacular walk along an earthy path. And something cheap in being served plastic-wrapped mechanically produced process cheese slices at every intersection.

 

MY ASSESSMENT: | Brilliant | Clear | Murky | Flawed | – a tangled charm bracelet.

 

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Disney’s The Lion King
continues at the N.A.C.’s Southam Hall
through August 7, 2011.

Tickets available ONLINE
by phone through Ticketmaster 1-888-991-2787 (ARTS)
or at the NAC Box Office

The National Arts Centre

Broadway Across Canada

 

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