Monday, October 7, 2013
Theater review: Lion King in Fair Park is a feast for the eyes and ears
Disney’s The Lion King is still fresh, electrifying and significant, as it was 20 years ago.
FAIR PARK Since first being introduced as a feature-length animated film in 1994, then being developed into a hugely successful Broadway production, The Lion King has remained one of the most popular musicals with worldwide appeal for audiences of all ages.
For well over a decade, The Lion King has been the highest-grossing Broadway musical in NYC history and has garnered numerous awards and achievements including Grammy Awards, Tony Awards, NY Drama Critics Circle Award, Evening Standard Award and Lawrence Olivier Awards and nominations for Music, Best Scene Design, Best Costume Design, Best Choreography, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Musical, Best Musical Show Album and the list of achievements continues to build. It has been translated into eight different languages: Japanese, French, German, Korean, Dutch, Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese. The Lion King is currently playing on Broadway, as well as on tour in North America, Japan, U.K., Hamburg, Madrid, Sao Paulo and in London’s West End.
The show has the distinction of having played in 98 cities, in 17 countries and on all but one continent. Julie Taymor, the show’s original director, costume designer and mask co-designer is the first woman to win a Tony Award for the Best Direction of a Musical. She continues to be an integral part of The Lion King, supervising new productions of the show in Las Vega, Madrid, the U.K. and Brazil.
The Broadway score for The Lion King features the original music by Elton John and Tice Rice, from the animated feature. Three additional songs by Rice and additional material by others were introduced for the musical, with music from Rhythm of the Pride Lands, a newer album that was inspired by the original music in the film.
Using the Music Hall at Fair Park for the Dallas tour is fitting, as this venue was originally built in the 1920s but has also experienced a fair amount of change and updating over the years. The outside design and structure of Music Hall at Fair Park still retains the Spanish Baroque styling that is familiar to the fair goers over the years. However, the interior has been tremendously updated to meet the needs and expectations of more contemporary productions and audience member, including comfortable seats that allow a slight recline and a seating capacity of more than 3,400. Almost all of those seats were filled by families with young children, teens and adults for the reviewed performance of The Lion King.
Arriving early, audience members are able to view the orchestra as they warm up in the open pit area in front of the proscenium style stage. On either side, African drums are used by percussionists during the performance. The percussionists are dressed in black clothing which works well to minimize their presence and not distract from the primary action taking place on the stage. However, audience members sitting close to the stage have the opportunity to watch how the drummers play their instruments.
This heart-warming, coming-of-age story is told through the eyes of animals indigenous to the African savannah, and in keeping with the African theme of the story, the grand drape is patterned with African motif designs.
As the show begins, the opening music begins to rise from the orchestra pit with the familiar tunes of the Lion King story. The orchestra consistently delivers the songs and sounds that help blend the scenes on stage with the emotions and imaginations of the audience. The acoustics and sound quality was such that, throughout most of the show, one could easily close their eyes and believe they were listening to a high quality CD of the show. A minor misstep occurred during the first act when young Simba was difficult to hear when singing “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” Otherwise, the music and the vocals of the actors and singers are powerful and easy to hear their various nuances and inflections for each character in the story.
The grand drapes open to reveal a stage that is initially almost bare, but then, as if by magic, becomes full of animals joyously dancing in celebration. Set pieces seem to float onto the stage as the dancing continues. Dancers and actors move back and forth across the stage in costumes, masks and puppet creations of lions, antelope, tall giraffes and various birds. These many colorful and creative designs include dancers that independently, or with others, control the puppet extensions of the costume that combines the dancer and the fluidity of a specific animal such as a cheetah and zebra. While this is all happening onstage, more animals such as monkeys and an elephant walk down the aisles and through the house to join the celebration. Huge credit and appreciation goes to the entire creative and technical team of light, sound, hair, makeup, mask and puppetry for creating an illusion that is easy to believe and magical to behold.
Costuming, hair and makeup for this production is brilliantly creative and the detail given to each mask, costume, color choice, styling of hair, and face and body paint is time-intensive and makes each character unique. There is the spiked hair and puppet costume of Pumbaa, the colorful monkey costume and face paint worn by Rufika. The design of the masks that Mufasa and Scar wear enables the masks to slide over their face by only a head movement. The costume design for the hyenas incorporate exaggerated head pieces. Sometimes the ensemble is costumed as the savannah grasslands, plants in a jungle and twenty-foot- tall giraffes. All this and the rest of the various puppet costumes will have the audience asking, “How do they do that? How did they make that? How does that work?”
In addition to the African drums on either side of the stage, the set design includes various large pieces that are moved on and off as needed in order to believably and effectively represent various locations such as Pride Rock, a jungle, an elephant graveyard, the African savannah and a night sky full of stars that provides the scene in which Mufasa inspires Simba to assume his rightful role. In addition to the extraordinary set pieces, several drops and effective lighting designs are used to create the illusion of being in a cave, under dark skies or a night full of stars, and the opening and closing scenes of a rising run. Shadow puppets are used on several occasions to represent chase scenes between animals or as transitions between two major scenes.
The character of Rafiki is the enigmatic and charismatic narrator for the story of The Lion King. Rafiki has shaman powers and is the character who presents the lion cubs to the crowd of other animals looking up at Pride Rock from the ground below. Brown Lindiwe Mkhize incorporates and interprets these characteristics into what could become a primary focus instead of the secondary character that Rakiki was originally intended. Wearing colorful and baggy costuming with multi-colored face paint, Mkhize playfully shuffles and dances across the stage at times while mumbling, talking to herself and making audible, teeth-clicking sounds similar to those made by aborigines in the bush areas of Africa. When Mkhize sings “He Lives in You” with the now-adult Simba, the audience hears a powerful and strong voice from this mischievous mandrill.
The moment that Patrick R. Brown appears, he gives Scar the perfect sneer, combined with the arrogant, haughty and entitled belief of a character conflicted with wanting to be king and how that is to be accomplished. With the tone of his voice and every nuance, body posture and movement, Brown is Scar, the character that you might feel a little sympathy for and love to hate.
Mufasa is the King of Pride Rock at the beginning of the story. Those who have seen the animated film over the years expect to see a Mufasa who is confident in his decisions, powerful yet fluid and graceful in his movements, tender with those he cares for yet forceful when the need arises. L. Steven Taylor embodies these characteristics as Mufasa in this production of The Lion King. Watching Taylor onstage, it is easy to understand that his muscular build and grace as a dancer are important attributes he uses well for this character. His interactions with young Simba show a dedicated and caring father that would be difficult to pretend and have to be felt. When Mufasa and Scar have their interactions, often with underlying threats from Scar, Taylor is able to take Mufasa through multiple emotions in seconds. His voice is clear, powerful and captivating whether speaking or singing.
Tryphena Wade as Sarabi is a talented and graceful dancer, believable as the mother of Simba and the noble partner of Mufasa.
Nick Cordileone as Timon, a meerkat, and Ben Lipitz as Pumbaa, a warthog, are part of the comic relief in this story. This pair of characters can be compared with other talented comedy pairs such as Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. As with any great comedy team, in order for the dialogue and physical comedy to work there has to be trust and impeccable timing between the two. It is apparent that these actors have that needed combination. The lines, jokes and other gags (including several fart gags) are delivered with ease and impeccable timing, and their chemistry works. It is also fun to watch the actors as they work their puppet “double.” The puppet character of Timon is attached to the costume worn by Cordileone and is maneuvered through hand controls. When the puppet Timon moves his head or body in a gesture, so does the actor as if in a mirror. Lipitz has a larger challenge, wearing the large harness of the puppet costume and spiked hair of Pumbaa. However, he equally handles this artistry with seeming ease.
Andrew Gorell plays Zazu, a red-billed Hornbill and the major domo for Mufasa. He also often acts as Mufasa’s advisor and at times babysitter for young Simba. Gorrell wears a costume that looks like a formal tuxedo in shades of blue with stripes with comically-curled tails on the tailcoat. Zazu is another of the many puppet characters in this show. The puppet characters are as remarkable as the actors that operate and often carry them. Gorrell carries the character of Zazu with one hand while operating the head and neck of the puppet with the other. Gorrell plays Zazu as the bird, slightly full of himself, who feels occasionally put upon while still loving and caring for his charges. Gorell makes this happen through expert skills that are visible through him as an actor and mirrored by the puppet. His talent as Zazu is such that you might wonder who to watch -- the actor or the puppet?
Those who are familiar with the story line will recognize and alternately hiss, boo and laugh at the three hyena characters of Banzai, Shenzi and Ed. The team of Keith Bennett as Benzai, Rashada Dawan as Shenzi and Robbie Swift as Ed make these characters come alive as they effectively manipulate the combination of costume and puppet controls. The costume design for these characters, another combination of puppet and more traditional costume, require the actors to manipulate the headpiece and front feet of the costume and then slouch around like hyenas while believably interacting and delivering dialogue. This is a difficult task, and judging by the reaction from the children in the audience, they succeed extremely well.
In the performance reviewed, Jordan A. Hall played Young Simba. Hall’s nervous energy and boyish charm mostly transfers well into the character of young Simba. Watching Hall play onstage with young Nala is like watching two young children play and interact on a playground. In the scenes between Mufasa and him, Hall gives Simba the warm connection of a son wanting the approval of his father. There is one scene in which Hall positions himself down stage center then turns his back to the audience to have a dialogue with actors slightly upstage. This blocking makes it difficult to fully appreciate the energy and animation that Hall gives to the character of Young Simba. His dancing and movement is skilled for his age and he has moments of fluidity and hesitancy as a young boy or cub would have in those circumstances.
Zyasia Jadea Page plays Young Nala in the performance reviewed. Page is a performer who shows a lot of skill and potential for a child of about 11, playing the young female lioness and companion to Young Simba. In scenes in which she is dancing with the other lionesses, Page shows skills as a dancer, and the demeanor that she gives to the character of a child who wants to appropriately impress her elders is equally as impressive. In her scenes with Young Simba, Page gives Nala that natural childish playfulness, us-against-the-world, we-are-invincible, camaraderie that two young children have as close friends.
Nia Holloway plays the adult Nala. Holloway gives the right amount of grace, forcefulness and determination, combined with teenage playfulness, when she discovers the adult Simba. In the scene where she discovers the adult Simba, Holloway is fluid as Nala. The focus that She gives to Nala is a good balance to the lack of focus from the newly discovered adult Simba.
Dashuan Young plays the adult Simba. Where Taylor, as Mufasa, has a more mature, deep voice and deliberate movement, Young has a clearer, strong tenor voice. Young also gives youthful, teenage energy and lack of focus to Simba as the young adult, sometimes confused and trying to discover and accept who he is. His athleticism and skill as a dancer are obvious as he swings on ropes, dances and tumbles about the stage with Timon and Pumbaa. Young believably shows the emotional transitions with which the young adult Simba is faced as he makes the decision to become who he was meant to be … with a little encouragement from Rafiki.
Disney’s The Lion King is still fresh, electrifying and significant, as it was almost 20 years ago. Whether you are an aspiring actor, dancer, singer, technical theatre enthusiast, fan of musical theatre or someone who likes a Disney story, the dancing, singing, acting, life-like puppetry, costumes, technical wizardry and the message of the story is something that all ages and generations will thoroughly enjoy.
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