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The King's Followers 

Forget critics. What do regular folks think about Lion King?

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The catchy songs, Scar and his costume, the way the cheetah moves — when a group of opening-night theatergoers start talking about The Lion King, topics like those keep coming up.

THE CHEETAH

Jake and Shantell Ridl, for example — both dentists from Spokane — were seeing The Lion King for the first time. In the opening parade of animals, at first they thought they “were watching our house cat, Scrumblie, stalk his way through the theater.” Then it registered: In the opening parade of animals, what they were actually seeing was a “beautifully costumed actress inside a puppet, controlling the fluid motion and catlike crawl of the graceful cheetah.” And it’s true: The cheetah probably represents the best union of human and animal in the entire show — rubbing its snout with its paws and rearing up, its head peering from side to side — all movements accomplished marionette-style by a puppeteer actress whose legs become the cheetah’s hind legs and who controls the cheetah’s head and front paws with strings.

Abbey Crawford — a pharmacist’s technician and mother of three, known to local audiences as an actress, cabaret singer and lead vocalist for Hot Club of Spokane — agrees that “the one animal that caught my eye was the cheetah. Not only was the woman working her beautiful, animated and graceful, but it was as if she made the cheetah actually breathe.”

The “smooth and realistic movement” of the cheetah was also a favorite of Jerry Nicholls, who owns Nicholls Engineering in Spokane Valley.

Megan Garcia, 13, offers a dissent, however: During “Circle of Life,” she was mostly watching the giraffes, “because it looked really cool, walking on stilts like that.”

SCAR AND HIS COSTUME

As for favorite characters, the Ridls liked the show’s villain, Simba’s uncle Scar: “his artistic makeup and costume almost had a sci-fi feel. Timothy Carter’s menacing lion’s mask was an extension of his body — we could not tell where the actor’s head stopped and the mask began.” (Using a handcontrolled device, Carter can make his sneering lion mask descend from over his head to in front of his face.)

Crawford (who’s also, along with her kids, a Lion King rookie) thought that the way Carter used his mask “was genius, considering that the contraption itself was genius.”

THE SONGS THEY SUNG AFTER

Crawford raves about “They Live in You” (a song about reverence for our ancestors): “It’s a testament to the show’s integrity…. I’ve been singing and humming it nonstop for two days (Hela hey mamela).”

On a more serious note, she also found “Shadowland” “moving, sad, desolate, but full of hope. [Nala] knew that she could not stay in her now destroyed home. She knew she had to do something to save her people. [Marja Harmon], who sung Nala, was breathtaking in her vocal abilities, but she was magnificent in sharing her emotional state as well.”

And Crawford felt like getting interactive during the South African choral song, “One by One”: “They were clearly sharing a part of themselves and their heritage. It was almost surreal for me, for the simple reason that I could almost see myself jumping up and joining them onstage. It was that inviting.”

Garcia liked “Chow Down” (with three hyenas salivating over the prospect of eating barbecued lion cub meat) “because it’s a little scary, but also silly and funny.”

And apparently Jake Ridl was going around the house all the next day, singing “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” especially the line, “I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware.” Is it common for dentists to be such megalomaniacs?

Our theatergoers had other likes and dislikes, of course. The “gazelle wheel” and “Mufasa’s apparition” came in for praise; the staging of “I Just Can’t Wait” (kids cavorting atop giant ostriches) was deemed excessively silly.

But Crawford’s summation is representative: “By far, the most magnificent, beautiful and moving piece of work I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen a lot of theater. I had no idea it would be as moving an experience as it was.

“What surprised me,” she adds, “was how not Disney it was.”

The Lion King will keep prowling through the INB Center until Dec. 6. Visit bestofbroadwayspokane.com or call 325-SEAT.

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