Sunday, November 30, 2014

Pride (in the Name of the Love Tonight): 'The Lion King' Re-manes a Glorious, Roaring Success -- Milwaukee Theater Review

Theater Review

The Lion King
The Milwaukee Theatre
Thru December 7

Back in July, I wrote up some Broadway recommendations for a trio of friends who would soon head to New York.

Although I expected them to see just one show--which they did--I listed 15 current productions that I might primarily recommend.

The Lion King wasn't among them.

To be fair, I included it among a final entry of "other options" and earlier in the article described it as "simply fantastic."

But even with knowing that my friends had never seen it, The Lion King wasn't a show I insisted they try to get to.

Partly this was because I surmised the long-running Disney hit wasn't a musical best aligned with my friends' tastes and proclivities. And as I was writing the piece just a month before my pals would hit the Big Apple, I also factored into my suggestions the likelihood of getting tickets for face value or perhaps even a discount.

Seventeen years after it opened on Broadway, The Lion King is not only still running but continues to sell out virtually every performance. (It is also still in its original run in London's West End, dating to 1999.)

Hence, it didn't seem prudent to pitch it to three guys over easier, cheaper and more overtly suited options such as Rocky: the Musical--which is what they saw, to their reported delight--or the Alan Cumming-led revival of Cabaret (my first choice if I get to NYC in time) or Kinky Boots or Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. (Note: Rocky closed on Broadway soon thereafter.)

Photos are not specifically from the touring production playing in Milwaukee
And honestly, The Lion King has been so successful, and around so long--including through Chicago on
several tours--that it seems somewhat archaic to compel others to see it.

Before this past Saturday, I had seen the stage musical 3 times, including 2001 on Broadway and 2003 & 2005 in Chicago.

Though I know I loved it, the elapsed time since my last encounter also undoubtedly dulled my remembrance, and tempered the vehemence of any recommendation that others see it.

For yes, we are talking about a Disney musical, based on an animated movie of the same name, from which much of the score by Elton John and Tim Rice came directly.

And thus I realize than many might be dubious about just how good, or "for them"--as opposed to for kids, or at least with the family--the live Lion King really could be.

Well, by virtue of trekking up to Milwaukee to catch a touring version--still with Broadway-caliber performances and first-rate Disney production values--I will say this to anyone with any interest in musical theater, or simply live entertainment:

The Lion King is one of the very best stage musicals ever created, and one of the greatest theatrical creations of any type.

Everyone from age 4 onward should see it, at least once, just to have it within their cultural vernacular.

Especially because, with deference to the dubious, what makes it so great isn't the music itself, nor the source movie or the storyline.

It's how director Julie Taymor and her team of creatives turned an animated musical about animals into a stage piece that really must be seen to be believed.

Taymor is also credited with the costume design, and the way lions and elephants and hyenas and birds and other jungle creatures are personified onstage is nothing short of genius.

Clearly I'm not the only one to believe this, as with The Lion King's mammoth success on Broadway, in London and on tour (plus the movies), it now lays claim to being the most successful musical of all-time.

But lest anything think it being a "family-friendly" wonder diminishes its brilliance for theater lovers of any age, well this is me telling you otherwise. Repeatedly.

Not that anyone reading this is likely to rush up to Milwaukee (if based near Chicago, as am I) for The Lion King's last week.

For even with 3,000 seats, The Milwaukee Theatre is seemingly filled to capacity at every performance, so scoring tickets at this point likely won't be easy or cheap. (We got top of the balcony nosebleeds on StubHub for slightly under face value.)

So I am admittedly writing this largely for my own sake. Because I clearly think The Lion King is worth heralding, celebrating and--for what it's worth--recommending.

Even with binoculars, from where I sat the cast members themselves were less individually distinctive given the glorious costuming and set designs, but the show wouldn't work without outstanding performers who not only have to sing & dance, but maneuver their complicated masks and, in many cases, full-size animal costumes (in which the humans are never fully hidden, but intertwined).

At Saturday's matinee in Milwaukee, the cast included Patrick R. Brown (Scar), L. Steven Taylor (Mufasa), Jelani Remy (Simba), Chondra L. Profit (an understudy, as Nala), Drew Hirshfeld (Zazu), Nick Cordileone (Timon), Ben Lipitz (Pumbaa). Unfortunately, I can't specify which talented children I saw as the Young Simba and Nala.

Although the score itself is not the highlight of The Lion King--and doesn't match that of musicals that I rank above it, and some below, in this 2012 list of my 100 favorite musicals--it stands far beyond being merely serviceable.

"Circle of Life," "Chow Down," "They Live in You," "Hakuna Matata," "Shadowland" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" are all good-to-great tunes, well-performed in Milwaukee.

But just as good if not better is the fusion of African sounds and chants, often accompanied by wonderful choreography.

There is also, for the uninitiated, quite a bit of humor in The Lion King, from fart jokes to topical ad-libs, in this case about Black Friday Doorbusters. The wise-cracking pair of Timon (a meerkat) and Pumbaa (a warthog with flatulence issues) are a whole lot of fun; with better agents they'd have their own spinoff by now.

Obviously, this is as much an appreciation for The Lion King musical itself as it is a review of the current production in Milwaukee. Though perhaps not the very best rendition I've ever seen, this staging doesn't seem deficient in any way, and thus does more than ample justice to the original. (Note to Allison: The omission of "The Morning Report" has long been the case on Broadway and on tour.)

So believe me or not.

It's not as if the Milwaukee Theatre or the Walt Disney Co. is in desperate need of your attendance, this week or ever.

But IMO, you really should see The Lion King onstage.

Sometime, some place.

It really is that great.

And in its own way, completely singular. You'll never see anything else quite like it.

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