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Fall Arts Preview - The Lion King 

by Michael Bowen & r & Disney's animated film of The Lion King made its debut 11 years ago, and maybe you're a little rusty, so let's review: Gazelles prance, savannah comes alive, Pride Rock rises out of the mist. King Mufasa holds his cub aloft, whispers a message: Cherish the Circle of Life, and while you're at it, stay away from those hyenas. But Mufasa has an evil brother. Scar starts a stampede, blames it on Simba, even orders a hit on his nephew. Simba has to leave town and meet a meerkat, a warthog and the requisite love interest before realizing that he's the once and future king whose to-do list contains just one teensy item: He needs to kill the uncle who murdered his father. Is this sounding like Hamlet yet?


While you may remember the outlines of the movie, however, the stage version of The Lion King -- now that's a whole different kind of wildcat. For one thing, the theatrical score adds three more Tim Rice and Elton John songs to the original five, along with African music that makes use of all manner of instruments: congas and bongos and cowbells; drums made out of nutshells, calfskin and logs; and a "mbira," a calabash gourd from Zimbabwe fitted with two dozen pluckable metal prongs.


There's another way that the staged Lion King advances beyond the animated movie: The theatrical version offers its own kind of special effects. Director Julie Taymor's African-mask costumes merge the human with the animal, the animal with the human. Ironically, by making no attempt to conceal the magic, they enhance the animistic magic that's at the heart of African folklore. Stoic masks sit atop expressive faces; bunraku puppeteers, in full view of the audience, manipulate five-foot-tall puppets using poles; shadow puppets appeal to the kid's source of wonder in all of us. A series of rollers with successively larger paintings, with humans wearing oversize masks in the foreground, seemingly put the audience right in the middle of the wildebeest stampede.


A cast of more than 40 performers create such dazzling effects. The second national touring company since the show's 1997 Broadway premiere visits Spokane's Opera House for an Oct. 27-Dec. 4 run. The "Cheetah Company" features Rufus Bonds Jr. as Mufasa, Larry Yanko as Scar and Wallace Smith as Simba.


Both the kids and parents who see them perform will emerge wide-eyed from a theater spectacle that's distinct from watching the Lion King DVD over and over at home. Theatergoers at the Opera House will find themselves entranced, but with a twist. Movies nearly always conceal their sources of illusion, offering no answer to questions like "How did they blow up all those spaceships?" But a stage spectacular like The Lion King can simultaneously convey the results and the sources of magic. You won't leave the Opera House wondering how it was done, because you saw it being done.

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