The piercing opening line of “The Lion King” translates from Zulu to “Here comes the lion.”
Lions do come, and so do giraffes and bison and gazelles and panthers, parading down the aisles leaving dropped jaws and misty eyes in their wake. Before anyone has time to settle into their seats, they are perched on the edge of them, watching enough animal puppetry to fill a Biblical ark flood the stage in one of theater’s most enduring spectacles. If “The Lion King”” was just two hours of avant-garde puppetry, it’s unlikely anybody would complain.
As it stands, “The Lion King” — which will be ruling the SHN Orpheum Theatre until its peaceful abdication Dec. 31 — retains the plot of the 1994 film, with additional numbers to sustain a full-length musical.
The story is so universally familiar it almost doesn’t bear repeating. Impatient prince Simba (Jalen Harris, stepping in for Dashaun Young) of the Pride Lands falls prey to his wicked uncle Scar’s (Mark Campbell) plot to take the throne from his infinitely cooler brother Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey), resulting in tragedy. Guilt-ridden, Simba flees to the jungle to live without worries with his two new best friends, a flatulent warthog and fast-talking meerkat, but eventually he must face his past and his destiny.
The musical doesn’t veer from this plot, and much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the film. What differentiates the show is original director Julie Taymor’s gorgeous, experimental vision. This is realized by masks and puppets that borrow from African art and textiles, shadow puppetry from Indonesia and Turkey and Japanese bunraku puppet theater to create its magic. Scenes which emphasize these influences are transcendent — such as the beautifully linear dance “Grasslands,” in which the chorus members act as the tall dry grass of the savannahs as a backdrop for puppets and the powerful “Lioness Hunt” sequence — and are some of the best moments in “The Lion King.”
That’s not to say that all of the added material is good — the villain numbers are generally duds. Unfortunately, Scar loses much of the sinister villainy of the film, where he was voiced perfectly by the inimitable Jeremy Irons. Mark Campbell’s British drawl and exaggerated sneer assure that he is legibly bad to the little kids in the audience, but for the adults, Scar lacks the mature menace of his big-screen predecessor.
Thursday night’s performance was also dampened by some technical difficulties. A wince-inducing glitch in the sound system caused an impromptu intermission during the first act, lessening the joyful impact of “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” a dizzying pageant of brightly colored animals as young Simba (BJ Covington) and Nala (Meilani Cisneros) attempt to distract their overbearing guardian Zazu (Drew Hirshfield).
Despite sound problems and some missed emotional beats, there’s still plenty to enjoy in the first act, namely the opening scenes and Mufasa’s moving lesson to Simba with “They Live In You.” Gerald Ramsey plays Mufasa with an appropriate amount of good dad gravitas. Also delightful are Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz) who, along with Rafiki (Buyi Zama) and her manic slapstick exuberance, successfully pull off the musical’s more juvenile humor — somehow those fart jokes always land.
The second act benefits from the introduction of the adult cast. Jalen Harris as Simba has a strong pop voice which feels nearly anachronistic but satisfying. Harris easily captures Simba’s confusion and youthful boisterousness, but he doesn’t quite achieve the fearsome dignity of Mufasa that Simba’s peers are meant to see in him. The real showstopper is Nia Holloway as a tough, graceful, grown-up Nala. Her voice fills the entire theater in Nala’s solo “Shadowland.”
The dissonance between Julie Taymor’s experimental theater experience and Disney’s influence is a little distracting, but “The Lion King” is an unsinkable work of theater. The wears and tears of nearly two decades aren’t enough to strip the musical of its basic childlike thrill. When enormous giraffes bend toward the audience, when a starry sky assembles into the face of Mufasa and any time the entire ensemble cast join in a song in “perfect harmony” to give this music its fullest sublime force, how can anyone be anything but utterly transfixed?