Julie Taymor and Michael Curry are indisputably the stars of the new Broadway musical version of The Lion King. They have produced costumes, masks, and puppets of such ingenuity and beauty that even the most jaded of viewers will not fail to be impressed by them. Rafiki, the baboon shaman who heralds the birth of the lion cub Simba at the beginning of the show, is artfully made up in a whimsical fur coat with what looks like a tambourine for a tail, her feet dominated by gigantic toenails and her face painted in a dazzling rainbow of shades. Antelopes whirr by like bicycles; stark, quiet giraffes move stealthily on stilts; an elephant as big as an elephant lumbers by. Bright splashes of cloth at the ends of sticks become birds streaking across a jungle sky, and actors in cane skirts and grass headdresses become the jungle floor. This is not your father's Disney musical: this Lion King is stylized, elegant, at times even, dare we say, sophisticated.
The story—familiar to the millions who saw the movie–is still the same: Simba is the only son of Mufasa, the king of the pridelands. Mufasa's evil brother Scar covets his throne and eventually succeeds in trapping Mufasa in a stampede, killing him. Scar tells the impressionable young Simba that it was his carelessness that caused his father's death; disgraced, Simba runs away from the pridelands, leaving Scar free to declare himself king. Away from home, Simba is befriended by a caustic meerkat named Timon and a good-natured warthog named Poomba, who teach him their philosophy of "no worries" ("Hakuna Matata").
Years later, Simba, now grown, accidentally meets up with his childhood playmate, a lioness named Nala, with whom he falls in love. She tells him of Scar's treachery, and together they return to the pridelands, defeat Scar, and Simba claims his rightful place as lion king, as the curtain falls. All five of the songs from the movie (including "Circle of Life" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?") are heard here, as well as several new ones (including the attractive "He Lives in You") and a number of South African-styled tribal chants. The jokey movie dialogue is here, too, although sometimes it appears to be at odds with the deliberate stylization that otherwise permeates this show.
That's what The Lion King is like. The question is: is it good? Well, most of the time it's visually impressive, and a good deal of the time it's reassuringly familiar. At the performance I attended, the audience responded to the eye-filling costumes, the occasional spectacular stage pictures, and the upbeat musical numbers with enthusiasm; they stood up and cheered at the curtain call.
But, for me anyway, nice as it all is, there's a notable lack of energy here. The material is notably weak—the storyline is simple-minded, the book is clumsy, and the score is only average–and even dressed up with all the avant-garde pizazz and theatrical technique that costumer-director Taymor can muster, this fundamental weakness can't be overcome. Without a compelling story to tell, the show finally is only about telling a story. Sure, there are flashes of brilliance. (Dishearteningly, there are also flashes of directorial ineptitude, like Taymor's overstaging of the opening number "Circle of Life," resulting in a loss of focus in what should be–and has been reputed to be–a coup de theatre.) Finally, The Lion King is soulless.
But you'll probably go see it anyway, and really, it's diverting enough. Just don't expect it to be moving or memorable.