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'The Lion King' Roars into Dayton

After seeing “The Lion King,” there is no question of why the show is regarded as royalty, despite no inclusion of even Pippa. (Well there is music by Elton John; he was at least at the royal wedding.) Anyway, the entire production is a spectacle of visual excellence, unlike anything ever seen before. The sights and sounds transports you from the Schuster Center to another realm, like a far away African jungle.

Recently, a friend of mine shared their low expectations of the show and why they had no desire to go. “I don’t see how they can bring all the activity of the movie to the stage,” they said. My only response is, THEY DID. From the leaping antelopes to the rushing herd of wildebeests, it’s all brought to life right before your very eyes.

It was certainly a daunting task to stage a cast entirely made of animals, but it’s masterfully done with some creative risks. The opening parade of four legged creatures; leopards, giraffes and an elephant is a most impressive display of human contortion and mobility. To see the graceful movements of the giraffes, within seconds of the curtain rising, is evidence enough that you are in store for something special.

The central storyline of family betrayal, jealousy and finally redemption is very relateable to humans so it’s acceptable that the featured players stand upright. King Mufasa and his evil sibling, Scar, are made to be lions only with a mask that hangs over their head, and occasional ferocious movements. They each bring nobility to their roles, Dionne Randolph is all righteous as Mufasa as J. Anthony Crane is sinfully delightful as the despicable Scar. The best villains are those the audience secretly roots for and despite all his dastardly deeds Scar brings a heightened level of enjoyment to the show.

Not since the Cowardly Lion of ‘Wizard of Oz,’ has there been a more lovable feline than Simba. The heir apparent to the throne is faced with harrowing obstacles, but is able to overcome them after looking into his heart. The young Simba, played on alternating nights by both Dusan Brown & Jerome Stephens Jr. bring the right amount of cuteness. The older Simba, Jelani Remy, is also loveable and is rooted for to claim his rightful position as King.

Whether it’s birds flying overhead or an over sized warthog, the puppetry in ‘Lion King’ is astounding and brings to mind the genius of Jim Henson. While the style wouldn’t work on Sesame Street, with the puppeteer along side Elmo, visibly operating him, it works on Broadway (or Second Street) with this production. Part of what makes ‘Lion King’ so unique is the correlation between man and beast, even within the characters. There is literally no separation between the two within the production.

Wherever Tony Freeman goes, so does Zazu, a colorful bird with a sharp witted beak. His feathers may get ruffled by some of Scar’s antics but his one liners continue to soar. As the loyal sidekick to Mufasa, Zazu provides much of the comic relief in the first act. Minus a few exceptions, Zazu would be hard to find in the second half even with a pair of binoculars.
Fear not, or shall I say “Hakuna Matata,” (no worries) as a number of laughs are provided by Pumbaa the warthog (Ben Lipitz) and Timon the meerkat (Nick Cordileone). The duo brings a lot of fun energy to the stage and almost steals the show. Like any comedic genius, they even have a good supply of the always reliable flatulence jokes.

Personally, though “Lion King,” is a musical, I feel the actual music is just a small part of its appeal. It’s not seen or remembered for its music. The ‘Circle of Life,’ is contagious as is ‘Hakuna Matata,’ and rhythmic African background music is present throughout but it’s all always superseded by the onstage happenings.

If I had one complaint, other than not understanding much of the hyenas dialogue, it’s the use of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” It’s a beautiful song that I adore, and I was looking forward to being moved by a powerful rendition by the likes of Elton John but was instead done as an ensemble (like in the movie). I simply just prefer it as a solo, but what do I know?

All the performances were splendid, and high praise is given to the entire cast, but ‘The Lion King’ is a rare, and perhaps only case, where the visuals of the costumes, stage design, effects etc. are the real stars of the show. Your eyes will be treated to a full array of dazzling sights and lead your entire body on a fun filled adventure that any aged child or adult will enjoy.

At Dayton’s Schuster Center through July 10, ‘The Lion King,’ has proven itself not only as King of the forest but also as a King of entertainment.

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