DETROIT — Disney brings pageantry, puppetry, poignancy and power to the stage production of “The Lion King” and Pride Rock has never looked or sounded better.
The regal Detroit Opera House makes a fitting venue for the returning theatrical version of The Lion King, a musical I had never seen until now. But, after 18 years since the show bowed on Broadway, even the most veteran of viewers will find that this version promises something new with a few special surprises sprinkled in.
Family is the one over-arching theme that you get a dose of as soon as you hand the usher your tickets. A carnival-like atmosphere greets each theatergoer at the door with yummy aromas of cotton candy, freshly popped corn, and cinnamon-roasted almonds. The theatre atmosphere sizzles with excitement and energy among both the young and the young at heart.
Once the curtain rises, the family theme continues with a rather Hamletesque tale of male relationships (father-son, brother-brother and uncle-nephew). It’s so fitting that this coming of age tale coincides with the beginning of the new-year and its cycle of life message. Where the cinematic version lacked strong female roles, Tony Award®-winning director, Julie Taymor, took care of that in the stage play by turning Rafiki into a female and young Nala is a presence to be reckoned with.
It can be a tricky feat to turn an animated movie into a two-act stage play that is also highly entertaining and viscerally appealing, but Taymor has done it again by providing a sensory feast full of delightful visual and sound effects.
There is also something magical about puppets when presented on the stage and the puppetry and stagecraft is exceptional in this production to the extent that it seamlessly transports the theatergoer into Simba’s world.
I have followed Julie Taymor’s career since 1995, when as a film minor in college, I was first introduced to her special brand of artistry and visionary talent. Taymor is not only the director, but costume designer and mask co-designer. After high school, she travelled overseas to train with Parisian mime Jacques LeCoq and it really shows. Taymor’s trip was also an introduction to the theatrical potential of masks and puppetry, and we see these two art forms merge on the Detroit Opera House stage to maximum effect.
Taymor’s use of raised (3D) masks on the actors is sometimes questioned as “distracting,” but she purposely designed them that way to ensure that she would not alienate great actors who would not want to hide their faces when they appear as “human animals.” I am glad she made that decision because The Lion King cast offers a wide range of expressions that helps the audience connect with the characters.
This production is also surprisingly funny with several pop culture references that got lots of laughs. It’s certainly worth noting that a special Open Captioned Performance will be held on Sunday, February 12 at 6:30 p.m. and tickets for the open captioned performance may be purchased in person at both the Fisher Theatre and Detroit Opera House box offices or by phone at (313) 872-1000, extension 0.
In these interesting times, a visit to the Serengeti via The Lion King is a great escape that will ply you with inspiring music crafted by Tony Award®-winning artists Elton John and Tim Rice and much “Hakuna Matata,” the Swahili phrase and dual Scene 13 song and dance number that roughly translated, means “no worries!”
REVIEW: ‘The Lion King’
When: Through Feb.26, including matinees.
Where: Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway Street, Detroit, MI 48226.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: Start at $25. Limited number of Premium Ticket Packages available, including prime seat location, a commemorative souvenir program and an exclusive merchandise item. For group sales of 12 or more call (313) 871-1132 or email firstname.lastname@example.org