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'The Lion King' Is a Feast For the Eyes

But lackluster performances dampen this touring production
Eli Black, 1:00pm, Thu. Jan. 31, 2013

Spectacular sets, costumes, and special effects upstage the actors in the touring production of Broadway’s The Lion King, currently running at the Bass Concert Hall through Feb. 10.

I really wanted to be blown away by the Lion King , so it wasn’t until the second act that I finally had to admit to myself that something was missing. This national touring production of the Julie Taymor-directed musical adaptation of the 1994 Disney classic, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, is hard to look away from, but disappointingly doesn’t deliver beyond its amazing visuals.

For starters, there aren’t enough power performances in this production; they’re certainly adequate with competent singing and dancing, but nobody steals the show with a particularly resonant voice or commanding presence. There are certain performances that should be mentioned: Nick Cordileone, as Timon, and Ben Lipitz, as Pumbaa, do nice jobs of playing the classic roles with a slight street-wise sleaze that really brings the characters to life. The hyenas – specifically Rashada Dawan, playing the head hyena originally made famous by Whoopi Goldberg – are lots of fun. The songs themselves – reprised classics from the original animation and new songs added on for the musical – are clearly good tunes, but with this cast, few of them really take flight.

Without transcendent performances, the cheesy humor and truncated plot points of the Broadway source material are more noticeable. There’s a kind of self-conscious humor throughout the play, with comments by Zazu like “This wasn’t in the cartoon,” and various “wink, wink, that was almost a bad word” jokes that are kind of annoying. Additionally, the dramatic timing sometimes feels off. Many of the key climatic moments seemed puzzlingly anti-climatic and clumsy. Without giving too much away, when Mufasa passes on early in the story, his death felt rushed, lacking the proper buildup and with an almost comically hurried aftermath. You can imagine both the humor and the timing being more forgivable with more compelling performances.

Still, it’s important to stress again how great the visuals are. The way the sets and the costumes play with color, depth, lighting and even distant shadows is pretty incredible. That’s what the Broadway original was known for and that wonder is still on display here. Visually speaking, every scene feels fresh and creative; the whole theatre feels alive, with actors dressed as animals crawling down the aisles accompanied by live music meant to mimic an African Tribal sound. The touring production does a nice job inhabiting the Bass Concert Hall space, making it feel vast and much larger than it is.

The musical is a testament to how great the original movie is and why it is rightfully immortalized in the canon of classic children’s movies. But in this particular production, it becomes clear how essential the performances are to making a familiar story carry so much dramatic power.

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