Back before THE LION KING went from screen to stage, who would've ever thought that Disney would go the "arty" route instead of choosing a straightforward presentation of their movie?
Obviously, I've just experienced this musical--finally!--and I was completely blown away. But I have a confession: I haven't even seen the animated movie. It's true! Some film buff I am. Still, I knew just about everything that happened during the story, so there were no surprises on that front. The plot is a very simple one: a young king is banished from his kingdom and he must return to fight for his throne. We've seen variations on this theme time and again. But something about the movie clearly spoke to children and adults alike: was it the use of animals instead of humans? Was it the Elton John music? Was it the setting? Or was it simply the "Circle of Life" message?
Whatever the case, the musical definitely goes with whatever originally worked and then some. The people who brought this from screen to stage made a bold choice in choosing Julie Taymor to direct the show. She was known for very progressive work in the theater at the time, and what she brought to this basic Disney-ized story allowed the show to be both mainstream and highbrow.
Bluntly, the presentation is breathtaking. When the sun first rises on stage and the wildlife silhouettes first wander into view, you're immediately transported. A voice calls out in song as "The Circle of Life" begins, then other voices mingle in harmony and rhythm. Then, slowly, the light rises, revealing something astounding: there's a man in the giraffe suit who's using stilts. Just...wow. Most of the characters are a strange and ultra-creative mixture of costume and puppetry and their movements are so effective and true that it's a beautiful thing to watch.
And the creations get better and better. Later, the hyenas come on stage: they stalk about with animated, yet menacing grace, darting into bursts of hyper aggression every once in a while. The child actors playing Simba and Nala are choreographed to swipe and bounce around like young animals, and they're perfect. Every single character on that stage is a surreal work of wonder that connects with the audience while conveying everything you need to know about that character.
If you get the chance to see this musical, go for it before the tickets are sold out. It's even appropriate to bring your kids to the theater.