The plot of The Lion King (for those of you who have been living under Pride Rock all these years) is your basic "Shakespeare-through-a-Disney-prism" story: the revered Mufasa (Alton F. White) presents heir to the throne Simba to an adoring crowd, much to the immediate resentment of Mufasa's brother Scar (Thom Sesma), who feels he's the rightful successor for the job. Scar will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, and his malevolent machinations set the drama in motion.
Not enough praise can be heaped on Tony Award winner Julie Taymor, whose overall vision has shaped the popular animated feature into a tour de force of Bunraku puppetry and African masks. The genius lies in Taymor's ability to reconcile Elton John and Tim Rice's modern American pop songs, which blend seamlessly with Lebo M's traditional African chants and rhythms, and to find a way for the three-dimensional actualizations of Disney cartoon characters Timon (Damian Baldet) and Pumbaa (Adam Kozlowski) to co-exist alongside the more abstract interpretations of Mufasa and Scar without the slightest sense of incongruity.
In addition, scenic designer Richard Hudson and lighting designer Donald Holder make good on the overworked notion of "a children's storybook come to life." The moody, atmospheric sets and lighting manage to bring a wildebeest stampede to life using a canvas scroll on rollers, or convey worlds of emotion with just the switch of a lighting gel.
And then there are the cast members themselves, whose strong performances ensure that they don't get overshadowed by the spectacle surrounding them. White brings a subtle regal elegance to his role as Mufasa, at the same time having some playful father-son moments with the young Simba (played here by Elijah Johnson, in a role alternated with Duane Ervin, and then as an adult by Clifton Oliver).
In the supporting roles, Broadway alumna Kissy Simmons, as Simba's love interest, Nala, commands the stage during her "Shadowlands" number. As Mufasa's right-hand bird Zazu, Patrick Kerr brings great humor to his multi-layered portrayal, operating a hand puppet while clad in a butler's derby. Buyi Zama, as the wise, almost zen-like mandrill Rafiki, uses her powerful, distinctive voice to great effect. As for Sesma, his reinterpretation of Jeremy Irons' cold, steely villainy can take some getting used to. While a great heavy and a strong presence in his own right, the actor sometimes plays Scar like a cross between Bert Lahr and Paul Lynde.
More importantly, there are such show-stopping (and eye-popping) musical numbers such as "Circle of Life," "He Lives in You," and "I Just Can't Wait to Be King." In the end, there's no simply way to fight it; once you enter the world of The Lion King, you will "feel the love tonight."