Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ sent audience to the savannahs of Africa

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The first time I took my daughter, Caitlin, to watch the Disney movie “The Lion King,” she was 2 years old. She was learning how to talk, and learning the difference between reality and fantasy.

Now, 18 years later, I once again took her to see it, but this time it was the musical at Popejoy Hall. She’s 20, in college and engaged. She’s learning a whole new set of life lessons.

Submitted photo: The devious Scar, left, played by Brent Harris, and the wise Mufasa, portrayed by Dionne Randolph, right, face off against each other in ‘The Lion King’ at Popejoy Hall. The classic tale of a young lion coming into his own only to be exiled from the pride lands and comes home to take his thrown back from Scar, is being performed for the next three weeks.

It truly is the circle of life, and we were both as mesmerized by what we witnessed last week as we were so many years ago.

A perfectly formed giraffe crosses the stage of Popejoy Hall, and you have to work backwards to realize it’s actually a human in costume. An elephant ambles down the aisle, and it is somehow rooted in the earth and simultaneously the stuff of pure imagination.

I do not exaggerate when I say that throughout the opening “Circle of Life” number, audible gasps of gee-whiz delight emitted from the audience. For this number, and a few others, the creators, cast and crew members behind the “The Lion King,” just dominate the creators of the film. The stage is their kingdom, their playground, and they take the familiar story and fuse it with unparalleled creativity and inspiration.

But every time one of these moments happens and you feel like you’re watching the story of “The Lion King” in a completely new way, the next moment the musical grows timid and hurries back to an exact replica of the source material.

That material is a beloved, wildly popular film, so clearly this works for many people. There’s a reason why “The Lion King” is one of the most profitable, longest running Broadway musicals around.

The musical, like the film, follows the arc of the young lion, Simba, whose wise, ruling father, Mufasa, is killed by his nefarious brother Scar. Scar and his band of hyena followers take over the lands of Pride Rock. Simba, exiled to the jungle, finds zany friends, Timon and Pumba, and ultimately the courage to return and fight. The rest is Disney history.

The biggest challenge of transitioning this story to the stage is the fact that all of the characters are African animals. It could so easily be laughable. But this is where “The Lion King” musical is at its most inspired.

Submitted photo: Buyi Zama is the wise baboon shaman Rafiki in Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ Broadway musical. The production will end its four-week run on Oct. 28 at Popejoy Hall.

Costume designer, Julie Taymor, along with her mask and puppet design partner, Michael Curry, will go down in Broadway legend for what they’ve done.

They’ve taken a massive cast of flesh and blood humans and transformed them into an anthropomorphic assortment of creatures that are both primal and refined, balletic and raw. The movement in this musical isn’t simple mimicry. It’s absolutely beautiful to watch.

Many of these actors sound strikingly similar to the voices from the film. And it’s great for the nostalgia factor.

I’ve never seen a faster standing ovation than I did at Popejoy Hall at the end of “The Lion King.” And it’s well deserved, because this musical is unlike anything you probably will ever see. Its story is solid, because the film’s story is such a classic, well-constructed arc.

Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s music and lyrics, including all of the film’s songs, are also solid and familiar. All of that makes for a very good musical.

But there’s greatness here, too. On a visual and technical level, this musical reaches absolute heights. The opening and closing numbers are two of the most stunning, inspired things I’ve seen on a stage. In these moments, the film is a distant memory. But the rest of the time, the film is front and center. If you love the movie then you’ll absolutely love the musical.

“The Lion King” runs through Oct. 28 at the Popejoy Hall. You can purchase tickets at select Albertsons locations, by calling UNM Tickets at 925-5858 or 877-664-8661, at the UNM Ticket Office at the Bookstore. Tickets start at $52.50.


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.