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'The Lion King' more than lives up to the hype

Everything you've heard about it for the past nine years is true: The Lion King is a tremendously inventive, visually arresting and often musically compelling stage show that can captivate adults as well as children. And the further it strays from the Disney animated movie, the better it gets.

Courtesy of Broadway in Tucson, a touring version of The Lion King has migrated to Tucson and settled into a six-week residency at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall. This is a very long run by Tucson standards; let's hope it can sustain an audience into the end of September. This is one modern musical that deploys spectacle purely in the service of the story and setting, not merely to justify charging $75 or more a ticket.

To be honest, any discussion of integrity here starts with the creation of the stage version, not with the earlier movie, which ripped off the plot of an old Japanese cartoon series, saddled the script with cute-hip dialogue for the lead lion cub ("You're so weird!") and dressed it all up with some utterly characterless songs by Elton John. The only truly laudable aspects of the movie were the animation and the voice performances by the likes of Jeremy Irons and Nathan Lane.

The stage musical takes the movie only as a starting point; in the music hall, we still have to put up with fart jokes and Elton John, but we are introduced to new elements in every department that take the story's African setting and culture seriously. Experiencing this in the theater is a far richer experience than watching the Disney animation on a DVD.

Elton John's songs have been supplemented with music by honest-to-god South African songwriter Lebo M. and others, and the most memorable music of the evening has nothing to do with junky Western pop-rock; there's an integrity and vitality to the African music that rises far above what almost anybody is writing for Broadway these days. And consider Gugwana Dlamini, who plays the baboon-shaman named Rafiki; almost all of her lines, spoken and sung, are in what sounds like Xhosa and at least one other African language, yet Dlamini puts across every utterance with an exuberance and conviction that shatter the language barrier.

Then there are the animals who come to pay homage to the newborn son, Simba, of Mufasa, the king of the lions. As masterminded by director/costume designer Julie Taymor, these are striking conceptualizations of animals that are anatomically true while evoking African art and meanwhile not trying in any way to conceal the humans behind the movement. Men with stilts attached to their feet and hands, and long headdresses reaching toward the flyspace, become elegant giraffes; dancers with antelope figures clamped to their arms and heads convey the leaping grace of the animals they portray. The lead actors wear elaborate headdresses or operate large puppets in front of them, melding their humanness with their animal figures, ultimately suggesting something far more real and fascinating than was possible from Bert Lahr in a kitty suit or Sarah Brightman in tabby-cat Spandex.

As a director, Taymor does not shy away from the violence inherent in any story about lions, even though this is a show intended in part for children. The dismemberment of an antelope during a hunt is graphic yet also symbolic and bloodless; when the lionesses mourn the death of Mufasa, their king, white ribbons come down from their eyes, streamers of tears that convey more emotion than any amount of actorly sobbing could.

And the choreography by modern-dance master Garth Fagan greatly elevates the artistry of movement on stage. Aside from one strangely inert sequence in the second act, with a leaf-bedecked Adam and Eve couple remaining fairly static on stage while two aerial couples do something inscrutable in the background, the dancing melds animal characteristics, the swaying of the African savannah and rainforest and the gestures of contemporary dance.

And lest we forget, a large cast of singing and dancing actors supplies the narrative frame for all these marvels of theatricality. Nathan Stampley plays Mufasa with both dignity and affection, and makes the most of his one big musical number, "They Live in You" (thankfully not one of the Elton John songs). Kevin Gray neatly conveys the feline venality of Mufasa's brother, Scar, who kills the king, banishes the rightful heir and assumes the throne. Gray is much more menacing and less effete than Jeremy Irons in Scar's most famous line, "It's to die for," but trading his savoir-faire for hysteria in his final scenes seems a miscalculation.

Timothy McGeever is amusingly foppish as the bird Zazu, the king's majordomo, and Damian Baldet and Phil Fiorini do well as the comic sidekicks Timon and Pumbaa, even though they seem more like understudies for Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. (Baldet, unfortunately, has to spend the evening standing behind a life-size Timon puppet that seems designed to inspire sales of Disney plush toys rather than evoke a real meerkat.) Wallace Smith as the adult Simba and Ta'Rea Campbell as his tough love interest, Nala, bring good voices and lithe physical strength to the second act, and their kid counterparts in the first act are good, too. Add Danielle Lee Greaves, Rudy Roberson and Robbie Swift as vicious laughing hyenas, plus a large ensemble of dancers, singers and puppet operators, and you have a human element that valiantly holds its own against the stage spectacle.

It's just early enough in this company's tour that the kinks have been worked out, but nobody's gotten bored or exhausted yet, so if you have even the faintest interest in The Lion King, this is the time and place to see it.

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