We Alaskans are probably ahead of the game when it comes to being prepared for "The Lion King." After all, many of us are outdoor types. We're often perched somewhere in the pucker brush, scanning for moose or caribou or wolves or bears or whatever. Which means most of us are already well stocked with binoculars.
And for this stage version of the Disney coming-of-age tale to be fully appreciated, binoculars are a must.
Because let's face it: "The Lion King" is mostly about the puppets.
Oh, the music's OK. The story's OK. But it's Julie Taymor and Michael Curry's wildly inventive mask and puppet design for the original 1997 Broadway hit that gets most of the attention. And rightly so. The show has only a handful of large set pieces: Pride Rock, the headquarters of king Mufasa and his lions of the savannah; and the big tumble of bones and tusks that represents an elephant graveyard. Most of the sets are created from lights and flowing fabric, sometimes with human "foliage" dancing, standing or lying around. It's all very beautiful and effective.
But two giraffes -- performers on arm-and-leg stilts -- ambling across the stage on opening night Wednesday brought applause from the mostly full house. It continued as birds, a cheetah, zebras and other creatures joined them. A huge elephant followed by its baby ambled down one aisle through the audience; a rhino entered via the other. And when the animals finished the opening number -- "The Circle of Life," one of the show's best-known songs -- the crowd let out cheers along with hearty clapping.
The costumes and puppets are impressive enough from a distance, but close up (remember the binoculars?) the creativity becomes even more apparent. The costumes are assembled from a wide range of materials, including fabric (some with African prints), beads, strips of wood, even what appears to be a hodgepodge of found objects that decorate the clothing of the shamanistic baboon, Rafiki.
The puppetry and masks are drawn from several styles. Some characters' masks sit atop their heads. Some extend above the head. Pumbaa the flatulent warthog is a huge head with a small rear body; the actor wears the costume like a sandwich board. Pumbaa's friend Timon, a meerkat, is a full-body puppet attached at several points to a man in a bright green suit who manipulates him rather like a Japanese Bunraku puppeteer. The trio of hyenas who are the villain's henchmen are especially well-done: Their heads are attached chest-high to the puppeteers, while "a strip of dark fur runs from the head up over each puppeteer's head and down the back, creating the hyena's distinctive low-head, high-shoulder top line.
It's easy to spend so much time studying the puppets and masks that you miss some of the play itself.
Not that the plot's terribly complicated. You'll catch up.
"The Lion King" is the tale of Simba (played as an adult by Andre Jackson and as a cub by both Chaz Marcus Fleming and Jerome Stephens Jr.), heir apparent to the strong and wise pride leader, Mufasa (Dionne Randolph). Mufasa falls prey to the machinations of his ambitious brother, Scar (Timothy Carter), who arranges for Mufasa to be trampled to death by a wildebeest herd and convinces Simba to go into exile. Scar takes over the pride, aided by his hyena enforcers (Andrea Jones, Omari Tau and Ben Roseberry).
As the years pass, the food runs out and the pride goes hungry. Meanwhile, Simba has grown to adulthood in the jungle, where he romps with Timon (Tyler Murree) and Pumbaa (Bob Amaral) until one day he encounters his childhood friend, Nala (played as an adult by Marja Harmon and as a cub by both Sade LouAnn Murray and Jamariana Tribble). Between Nala and Rafiki (Phindile Mkhize), Simba is persuaded to return to Pride Rock and challenge Scar.
Opening night's performance was free of apparent glitches, except for difficulties hearing Scar's lyrics in his song "Be Prepared." Actor Carter was appropriately oily, but his words were nearly drowned out by the other voices.
Acting through costumes and masks can be a daunting task, but the performers carried it off. Particular standouts Wednesday were Randolph, who gave a wonderful gravitas to Mufasa; Mkhize, whose penetrating but tuneful voice brought Rafiki front and center in "The Circle of Life"/"Nants' Ingonyama"; and Tony Freeman as Zazu, the hornbill who is Mufasa's majordomo.
The youngsters in the audience seemed to enjoy the spectacle, but their seniors likely appreciated it even more. Standing ovations are all too frequent (and all too often undeserved) for touring companies that play Alaska, but in this case, the technical achievements alone were probably enough to get the audience on its feet at the end.
"The Lion King" runs through Oct. 11. Don't forget the binoculars.
The Lion King
Will be presented at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday through Oct. 11 in Atwood Concert Hall. There will be an additional show at 2 p.m. on Oct. 8 and no 6 p.m. show on Oct. 11. Tickets $39.50-$94.50, general admission and $29.50-$92 for youth and seniors, available at centertix.net or by calling 263-2787.
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By Linda Billington