14 January 2008

REVIEW: The Lion King

When a production has received as much acclaim as The Lion King has, it becomes expected that the reviews will all be equally as glowing and pristine. The awards and good press create a cultural blind spot. But unyielding praise of a production is as dangerous as a bad review. People who would generally not attend the theater to see a play, let alone a musical, show up in droves to see a performance of a production as big as The Lion King. The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and more recently, Wicked, and Rent have all been approached by audiences in the same way. Theater goers have heard glowing praise for the adaptation, or costumes, and instantly they forget that they too are critics and have the ability to dislike a production even though the mainstream consensus is that a particular production is the latest bit of genius to hit any stage in the world.

The Pittsburgh run of The Lion King has been no different.

Julie Taymor’s adaptation of the animated feature to stage was incredible. She had enormous shoes to fill considering the success of Disney’s animated feature, and to transform a cast entirely comprised of animals to something able to be performed in an understandable way by people was no small feat. The costumes were well deserving of the awards they received, and provided an overwhelming spectacle not often experienced in the theater any more. The set was versatile and the use of costumes to indicate movement across the plains was beautifully effective.

By far, Phindile Mkhize’s rendition of Rafiki and Mark Cameron Pow’s performance of ZaZu were the stand out performances. Mkhize’s voice alone is reason enough to just stand in the lobby for the production. Pow’s manipulation of the Zazu puppet and his ability to incorporate both emotion and physical comedy into his performance easily make Zazu one of the best loved characters in the show. But while the individual performances were excellent, the music outstanding, and the costumes unparalleled, there are other things to consider when judging whether or not a performance was good.

Perhaps, then, my criticism is more academic in nature than traditional reviews.

Part of the great impact of The Lion King on screen was the pace and momentum of the story, and a stage adaptation should be no different. The crucial scene where Simba finds his father, Mufasa, dead in the gorge is the turning point for the entire production. In the original film the audience was left with a significant amount of time to experience the loss of Mufasa. He was the driving force of goodness in the play up until this scene, and the most important emotional connection and influence for the main character. Allowing the audience to experience that loss with Simba is important for a number of reasons: it allows the audience to viscerally understand the loss and importance of that loss in the psychology of a child, and it also sets up the audience’s hatred of Scar at the end of that scene. To rush through the death of Mufasa and Simba’s panicked grieving minimalizes the cruelty of Scar’s words to the child. It reduces the power of Scar’s villainy, and leaves the audience potentially liking the villain rather than eagerly anticipating his downfall. It’s true, every character must be likable in some way for the audience to invest themselves in their outcome, but the root of Scar’s role as a villain is that specific scene. Without adequately allowing for the catharsis Mufasa’s death causes, Scar is just a bad guy—not the cruel, power hungry villain he was intended to be.

The stage production did a beautiful job of translating Mufasa’s murder to the stage, and the resulting power of his body lying on the stage was impacting, but the time between when Simba found the body of his father and when Scar enters and blames the child for his parent’s death was rushed. In fact, it was so rushed that it became anticlimactic. By the end of the show, the tragedy that Simba was forced to overcome was diminished because of the lack of catharsis in Mufasa’s death scene. Simba’s angst throughout the second act was reduced, and his subsequent return was then weakened. Without the power of that scene firmly established, and the emotional connections properly ingrained, the emotional and physical triumph of the hero was relegated to cliché.

Others have attempted to justify this change in this particular stage production because of the number of children who would attend the show. This is unfounded and ridiculous. The Disney film was a children’s film, marketed to children, and viewed obsessively by swaths of children around the world. The stage production should be no different. If anything, the translation to the stage provides ample opportunity to introduce a memorable theatrical experience to a young audience (and an audience of theater neglecting adults) who may never have been to a stage production before.

The Lion King is well worth a trip to the theater, and well worth the cost of admission. Enjoy the costumes, the music, and the effects that have garnered the acclaim the production deserves. For entertainment purposes, The Lion King is still one of the greatest spectacles to hit the Pittsburgh stage for quite some time.

~Review by Dawn Papuga


Kelly Dailey said...

I saw the show the last time it ran through Pittsburgh and although I have a rather deep (almost ridiculous) love for the movie, I just wasn't blown away by the theatre production. I am such a huge Broadway junkie that I thought I would absolutely and almost blindingly love the show mainly because I really never came across anything negative written or said about the production. But I was left disappointed. Yes, the costumes were fabulous. Yes, the performers were top-rate. Yes, the puppetry was astonishing. But the heart was missing. I can go a step further and say that I found the Mufasa death scene utterly unmoving. The scene in the movie always, no matter how many times I see it, reduces me to a puddle of tears. Which, as you say above sets the tone for the rest of the story. The audience must feel the devastating loss that this death represents not only to Simba but to everyone in the Kingdom which makes the actions of Scar all the more evil. Therefore, this tragedy makes Simba's return and Scar's eventual undoing the ultimate triumph. The theatre production didn't move me and get to my heart as it should have so I was left just admiring the extravagance of it all but feeling rather empty. This is never a satisfying theatre experience no matter how pretty it all may be.

D.M. Papuga said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who recognized this!

It's certainly a pretty thing to see, but if you're banking on being moved, The Lion King just isn't going to cut it.

Interestingly enough, I think it's the fans of the film (like you) who are the most disappointed in the rushed nature of the stage production. The songs are fun, and the costumes are beautiful, but people are drawn to films (or plays, novels, art--you name it) time and time again because of the emotional impact they have. It's why Casablanca is still one of the top movies in cinematic history. It's also why I think 300 will go down in history as being visually and artistically stunning and innovative, but ultimately, not one of the best.

I was disappointed in The Lion King, and I don't think I'd be lining up to get tickets again. Once was necessary, twice, not so much. To be cliche: "Been there, done that."