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Published: Thursday, 2/28/2008

Magic rules production of Disney Prideland in hit musical 'Lion King'

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Dashaun Young as Simba in 'Endless Night.' Dashaun Young as Simba in 'Endless Night.'
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Magical is the word that keeps coming to mind when I think of The Lion King.

The Disney stage musical, based on the 1994 movie, won six Tony Awards in 1998, including best direction, costumes, lighting, choreography, and scenic design. The production that runs through March 30 in the Stranahan Theater doesn't compromise on any of those elements.

Disney often has been criticized for anthropomorphizing its animated characters, especially the animals, giving them characteristics that are more human than animal.

In bringing The Lion King to the stage, director Julie Taymor, the 1974 Oberlin College graduate who also designed the costumes, masks, and puppets, turned this criticism on its ear.

From the opening moment when the awkward yet graceful giraffes glide onto the stage, Taymor embraces the fact that humans are playing animals.

She dresses her actors in costumes of Kente cloth and other traditional African fabrics. Many of them wear masks as headdresses, designating the animals they represent. Because the masks are static, she deliberately keeps the actors' faces in view so that their expressions are easy to read. Those who don't wear masks, such as Rafiki, the mandrill who is the Pridelands' shaman, wear stylized makeup to suggest the animal they portray.

And it's a curious thing. Shortly after the first realization that the giraffe is really an actor on stilts wearing a tall headdress, the human and the animal merge into a hybrid, a composite. Whatever you want to call it, the combination works.

In The Lion King, the wise and courageous lion Mufasa rules the Pridelands of Africa, working to keep his lands prosperous and in balance with nature. His young son, Simba, seems more interested in playing with his best friend, Nala, than in learning to be a leader.

Mufasa's cunning, jealous brother, Scar, engineers Mufasa's death and makes Simba believe he is responsible. He urges the lad to run away and tells the Prideland's lionesses that the cub is dead. Scar assumes the throne and maintains a dictatorial rule with the help of the much-hated hyenas.

In exile, Simba becomes friends with Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog, accepting their "Hakuna Matata" (no worries) philosophy until, as a young adult, his sense of responsibility begins to grow.

Still ashamed of his role in his father's death, Simba is unwilling to return home until a chance meeting with some old friends.

Purely as a play, The Lion King is wonderful in the first act but falters in the second. Simba's return and his challenge of Scar feels rushed, with a curiously muted sense of suspense. Simba and Scar approach their climactic fight as buddies settling a childhood spat rather than a fight to the death. Maybe this is because there are children in the audience, but the death of Mufasa earlier is much more emotionally touching.

But here's the thing: You can't approach The Lion King simply as a play. It is an inventive spectacle. So much of it produces a sense of wonder that any shortcomings in the story are barely worth mentioning.

Dashaun Young and Erica Ash are young and fit and make a beautiful couple as the adult Simba and Nala. Christopher Borger and Chantylla Johnson are joyously engaging as their younger counterparts. The children alternate performances with Jeremy Gumbs and Georgette Francois.

As Mufasa, Dionne Randolph is majestic, and Scar is appropriately menacing. As with most stories, the villain has most of the best lines, and Timothy Carter's languid delivery is deliciously evil.

And then there's Zazu, the flighty hornbill who is Mufasa's long-suffering majordomo. With his sardonic delivery, the human half of the character, Mark Cameron Pow, in bowler hat and tailcoat, quickly becomes an audience favorite.

Other personal favorites include the cheetah, whose handler, Nicole Smith, is as gracefully sinuous as the puppet she controls, and Phindile Mkhize as Rafiki the mandrill, who does not take any sass from the king or the cub-who-would-be-king.

For the stage, the music by Elton John and Tim Rice has been augmented by African-inspired choral numbers that define the action's sense of place better than any map could.

With its mesmerizing design and timeless story, The Lion King is a show for all ages as well as one for the ages. Julie Taymor's breathtaking world is easy to enter and hard to leave, and the cast and crew at the Stranahan are first rate.

If ever there was a don't-miss show, this is it.

"The Lion King" runs through March 30 in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ticket prices range from $20 to $67. Premium packages are $125. Tickets are available at the Stranahan Theater box office, 419-381-8851; Ticketmaster, 419-474-1333, and www.ticketmaster.com.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com or 419-724-6130.



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