Tshidi Manye as Rafiki in The Lion King.
Photo- © Broadway.com
The Lion King
Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Julie Taymor
Review by Eli Keel
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Eli Keel. All rights reserved.
Editors note: Although most performances of The Lion King’s run in Louisville were sold out, the winter weather has freed up tickets for shows during the first week.
Disney’s stage adaptation of The Lion King is about eighteen years old. It’s the fourth longest running musical of all time, and the highest grossing taking in over a billion dollars worldwide.
Like the circle of life described in its opening number, The Lion King will seemingly never stop.
As long as there are smiling laughing children in the audience, I suppose that’s an okay thing.
There was a particularly adorable and well-behaved, four-year old sitting directly in front of me last evening at opening night of the PNC Broadway in Louisville presentation of The Lion King. Anytime I found myself annoyed with cloying statements about destiny, the unfortunate indoctrination supporting the divine right of kings, or the frequent and oblique reinforcement of the idea that ‘might makes right’, I just checked in with the kid in front of me who was enthralled. It’s hard not to be drawn in when there is such joy in the air.
Despite the rapt attention of the many children in attendance, it was impossible to ignore the fact that The Lion King is getting a little long in the tooth. (And a quick Google search revealed that I’m not the first reviewer to discover that terrible pun, or to have this opinion.)
The Lion King is at an unfortunate age, it’s not quite old enough to be looked at as a piece of history, but it’s well past fresh. The puppetry that so blew our minds when The Lion King first opened eighteen years ago has now been showcased on every morning show imaginable, paraded on Thanksgiving Day, and viral video-d nearly to death. It’s been ripped off ad nauseam by lesser artists. It has also inspired a new generation to go out and try puppetry for themselves, and they have created innovation and art far beyond director Julie Taymor’s once ground breaking vision.
The Lion Kings puppetry and pageantry is still pretty cool, but it’s far from mind-blowing.
The world has also changed a lot in the last eighteen years. The zeitgeist is a lot harder on racial appropriation. Post Ferguson and post Iggy Azalea it’s was a lot harder for me to forget that I was watching an imaginary and magical version of Africa that was dreamed up by mostly white people.
Outside of thematic or rhetorical problems, the touring company fails to land several key moments, which often leaves the big emotional pay offs feeling pretty hollow. As the giant puppets frolic or fight, and huge set pieces travel on and off stage gracefully, the performers often seem to be just another set of moving pieces designed to create a spectacular image.
The few moments I was really moved involved times the performers got to simply perform. When Mufasa (L. Steven Taylor) took off his elaborate headpiece to sing “They Live in You,” there is actual connection between performers.
Despite any lack of freshness, the stage is full of consummate professionals who deliver their notes and blocking, flawlessly. The music is unquestionably moving. The production values are incredibly. And the puppets are still pretty cool.
Die hard fans should note that some cuts have apparently been made form the original Broadway production. “The Morning Report,” is completely missing, and I think some other portions may have been slightly trimmed as well.
Of course, all twenty-eight performances of The Lion King are almost completely sold out already.
If you have tickets, I hope you enjoy the show as much as the little girl in front of me did. Barring that, I hope you have at least have a child close by whose innocent joy drags your cold, cynical heart back into the moment with statements like “Look momma, elephants. Look, a BABY ELEPHANT!”
The Lion King
March 3 – 29, 2015
PNC Broadway In Louisville
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40204
[box_light]Eli Keel is a Louisville based playwright, poet, storyteller, and freelance journalist. He has been published in Word Hotel, his plays have been produced by Theatre  and Finnigan Productions, and he was invited to read his work at the 2014 Writer’s Block. He is a frequent contributor to Insider Louisville, where he has been given the (informal) title of “Chief of the Bureau of Quirk.”[/box_light]