The Lion King
It has been said that the musical "The Lion King," now playing at the Orpheum, "has legs" because it remains charming 15 years after its Broadway debut. It's more accurate to say it has wings, for it retains an innovative beauty and spirit that soars.
Put it this way: the costumes and concept of the storied musical are sheer breakthrough genius that still dazzle oohs and aahs out of even the most jaded spectators. From the moment the men-on-stilts giraffes begin striding through the audience to climb onto the stage and into the grassy plains of Africa, to the final celebratory mass chorus of generational triumph, the audience is transported far from the theater and into a magical animal kingdom.
"Lion King" is not so much theater as a fusion of puppetry and choreography. The first few minutes one alternates between looking at the faces of the actors and the masks of the animals they represent, but by the time the hyenas make their way into the plot, one is simply fixed at watching the character the actor and mask combine to evoke.
Like most great operas, the plot of "Lion King" is overly simplistic almost to the point of inanity. Following the same line as the 1994 Disney cartoon on which it is based, the story begins with the birth of Simba, heir apparent to his father, Mufasa.
Simba is tricked by his evil uncle Scar into wandering into dangerous territory resulting (spoiler alert) in Mufasa's death and Simba's disappearance from the pack. Simba falls in with an easy-going meerkat (Timon) and a friendly warthog (Pumba ), with whom he learns to live happily eating garbage.
Meanwhile, back on the grasslands, things are going to hell under Scar and his hyena henchmen. Simba is eventually coaxed back home by his former girlfriend, defeats Scar, casts out the hyenas, and order is restored.
Wagner couldn't do better.
Not sure what the political message is in a play in which everyone is supposed to be happy living in a hereditary patriarchy, a balance of all things living is valued but scavenger species that aren't cute and cuddly (the hyenas play the dramatic role of the Wicked Witch's flying monkeys) are vilified, and everyone is expected to accept pre-set roles in society without freedom to choose the lives they would prefer; and you might not want to have to explain the grisly details to your kids about how a pride ends up with so many females and so few males -- but hey, don't look too closely at the plot. This is a kid's story with adult production values seen through a Disneyland lens.
Oh, a word about those kids, and you'll thank me for this later. Parents, if your infants are young enough to have a 9 p.m. or earlier bedtime, don't take them to an evening performance; that's what afternoon matinees are for. If your children are old enough to stay up past 9, then they are old enough to know that they should stay still and silent during the performance.
And if you are old enough to have children that old, you are old enough to know this and shouldn't have to be told. One of the most striking aspects of "Lion King" are the soaring musical solos, but the racket of wailing and squirming little chilluns at the performance I attended prevent me from being able to remark on the quality of the singers. The audience in the back seemed to love them.
Except for some inexplicable corsets worn by Simba and Mufasa that make them look like they were runners-up in a Mae West drag contest, the costumes are staggeringly beautiful and entirely evocative of the fauna they are designed to symbolize. The staging and lighting are equally transformative. It is hard to make an essentially bare stage seem like the board landscape of the open African savanna, but that's exactly what happens.
With a light plot and strong visuals, the play's ability to keep the audience fully engaged rests largely on the comic performance of the key supporting characters. The San Francisco production especially shines in this regard.
Derek Smith as the manipulative uncle gives a performance worthy of Hans Conried, and the slapstick partnership of Nick Cordileone as Timon and Ben Lipitz as Pumba provides banter reminiscent of the best of the old Warner Brothers cartoons.
"The Lion King" runs through Jan. 13 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St. in San Francisco. For info or tickets, call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com