Many Broadway musicals are film adaptations, but the transition from movie to stage can be tricky when the source work is animated. Shrek the Musical (the touring production comes to New Orleans in June) is an example of how clunky and overly literal a translation can be, resulting in something that looks more like Disney on Ice than a Broadway show. But The Lion King works because it offers an inspired interpretation of the 1994 Disney film's animal kingdom.
Elements that made The Lion King so popular — it's the sixth longest-running show on Broadway — include costumes, puppetry and other mechanics used to animate the film's environs and characters for the stage. Audiences get the extent of director Julie Taymor's original vision (Taymor was the original director of Broadway's notoriously troubled Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). The show opener "The Circle of Life" introduces the full array of animals — lions, elephants, zebras and others — which emerges from the stage wings and walks in procession down the theater's aisles (audiences should take their seats early: latecomers are held in the lobby until after that number). Cast members demonstrate exceptional grace, control and athleticism in operating these animals, especially the giraffes portrayed by actors on stilts, a life-sized cheetah puppet and birds whose operators mimic flight by darting down the aisles and around the stage.
Even the cast members whose roles don't require as much apparatus are captivating. Rafiki (Buyi Zama), who is a monkey in the film but human in the stage version, functions as an enigmatic mystic figure. She commands attention from the beginning with that piercing Zulu verse that begins "Circle of Life." She's got a singing voice that can be simultaneously big and restrained, and she's effective at both humorous and emotional moments. The child actors portraying young Simba (Adante Power) and Nala (Sade Phillip-Demorcy) have refreshingly childlike singing voices that they don't push to sound more mature. J. Anthony Crane is perfectly diabolical as Scar, who has designs on his brother Mufasa's (played powerfully by Dionne Randolph) position as king. Syndee Winters embodies the strength and beauty of the adult Nala.
Scenes and characters taken most literally from the film don't work well. The trio of goofy, dim-witted hyenas (Rashada Dawan, Keith Bennett and Robbie Swift) and Timon and Pumba (Nick Cordileone and Tony Freeman) are facsimiles of their animated counterparts down to the costumes, and they don't offer many surprises.
This is, in many ways, a kid's show — animal puns and G-rated fart jokes abound. But adults will marvel at the animals and the complex staging that uses creative lighting and set pieces to add depth and create other illusions (the pivotal stampede scene is the best example), as well as dance numbers featuring a highly athletic ensemble and the African-inspired songs that supplement the original score by Elton John and Tim Rice. The Lion King retains enough of its original elements to satisfy nostalgic viewers, but it strays enough from the source material to make it fresh and exciting.