Julie Taymor’s Playful Parade of Animals, Ancestors Still Thrills
by Barry David Horwitz
The colors, the lights, the beautiful animals walking with acrobatic grace, the moving grasslands—they are gliding down the aisles. Rhinos, elephants, giraffes, and cheetahs lope along onstage with their distinctive gaits—miracles of puppetry and acrobatics.
Still magnificent after 26 years, many Tony Awards, and world-wide tours, Director Julie Taymor’s spectacle brilliantly recreates the savanna with African-inspired songs, chants, and design. With music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice—and new music and lyrics by Taymor and others—we are magically transported to a mythic Africa that stirs the soul and quickens the senses.
“The Lion King” amazes young, old, and everyone in between. When those brilliant ten foot plus puppets stride along, operated by brilliant dancer/puppeteers inside them, we embark on a safari into imagination. The gliding puppets and African masks by Taymor and Michael Curry offer a treasure trove of African and Asian artistry.
The African shaman Rifiki (magical Mukelisiwe Goba) tells us the story of a King’s rise and fall. With the wit of an ancient storyteller, Goba dances and plays with traditional African legends and costumes. She displays African wisdom, focusing us on forces beyond our daily reckoning, invoking the familiar song “Circle of Life.”
When the King of the Lions Musafa (powerful Gerald Ramsey) rises to his full height on Pride Rock, we see the Pride Lands through his eyes. Under a startling starry night, the King sings to his son Young Simba (endearing Julian Villela), explaining to him that their ancestors, “They Live in You.” Even their snarky sidekick Zazu the Hornbill (hilarious Drew Hershfield) listens to the ancient wisdom.
Taymor’s masks, designs, and music still celebrate African arts and imagery. From the first booming notes, giraffes and antelopes roll up the aisles and across the stage, leaving us breathless. How can the Pride Lands turn into Paradise Lost?
Young Simba and Young Naia (sparkling Jaxyn Damasco) make a charming pair of children who break the King’s orders and sneak off to the land of the Hyenas. The arch-villain, the King’s brother Scar (hypnotic Peter Hargrave) nearly steals the show with his confessions of unashamed evil. When Hargrave lowers the mask atop his head and snarls at the world, he embodies our deepest fears. Scar’s world-destroying sneer brings the Former Guy to mind—full of feeble accusations and desperate lies.
The jungle paradise is destroyed by Scar’s jealousy and greed. He gathers the predatory hyenas to bring down his brother’s orderly kingdom. The howling hyenas crane their grotesque, flexible necks to devour anyone who still has a heart. They snarl at grown Simba (noble Darian Sanders) and grown-up Nala (enchanting Khalifa White). For pure good versus pure evil, you can not beat these symbolic counterparts.
Simba meets his sidekicks in the battle for virtue, two perfect cartoon characters: an orange meercat named Timon (witty Nick Cordileone) and the massive but shy warthog Pumbaa (jovial John E. Brady). They bring comedy and loyalty to oppose Scar’s devastation.
As the gazelles roll by, the ensemble sings “Hakuna Matata,” spreading joy and light again to the triumphant world of Julie Taymor’s inspiring, fabulous musical! It’s time to see the new “King” at BroadwaySF.
“The Lion King” – directed by Julie Taymor, music & lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice, additional music by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, & Hanz Zimmer, book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi,
scenic design by Richard Hudson, costume design by Julie Taymor, lighting design by Donald Holder, mask & puppet design by Julie Taymor & Michael Curry, by Disney Theatrical Group, at BroadwaySF, Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco. Info: BroadwaySF.com – to December 30, 2023.
Cast: Mukelisiwe Goba, Gerald Ramsey, Jennifer Theriot, Drew Hershfield, Nick LaMedica, Peter Hargrave, Mason Lawson / Julian Villela, Jaxyn Damasco / Aniya Simone, Martina Sykes, Forest VanDyke, Robbie Swift, Nick Cordileone, John E. Brady, Darian Sanders, and Khalifa White.
Banner photo: Mukelisiwe Goba (Rafiki). Photos by Matthew Murphy