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by Michael Bowen & r & In a world where Broadway shows are lucky if they make back their money and close after several months, The Lion King has been on Broadway for eight years. There are at least seven other international "sit-down" (i.e., non-touring) productions. (Japan alone has three of them.) And there are two touring companies in the States ("Gazelle" for the East Coast, "Cheetah" for the West).

In other words, a whole lot of people have seen L.K. onstage. Three weeks ago, I was one of them, catching a performance at Portland's Keller Auditorium and then spending the next day interviewing actors, backstage personnel and one very excited theatergoer, who said, "Be sure to tell people in Spokane that they will just love this show!"

OK, so The Lion King is a Disney juggernaut. But with the '94 animated film on permanent rotation in your kids' DVD player, and with Disney amusement parks making Simba and his gang part of America's destination vacations, why seek out the stage version?

Because film is about perception, because roller coasters are about sensation and because this stage show -- far more than others today -- is about imagination. Your own imagination: filling in the hints that the theater offers, using your own creativity, participating in spiritual reflections about the intermingling of all creation.

OK, so I hit the repeat button for "Circle of Life" too often. But try it this way: Environmentalists can lecture at us all they want about our ecological responsibilities -- but when you see half-man/half-giraffe creatures strutting into view, or the feline grace of the half-woman/half-cheetah, all those words about preserving our planet are subsumed into moving images onstage: the human in the animal, the animal in the human. We are part of all that we see -- not just in the "Circle" lyrics, but throughout the show.

Director Julie Taymor demonstrated what theater can do and realistic movies can't: Hints of costume and action and motive can coalesce in our minds into fully formed ideas. And we participated in that. After all, we're the ones pivoting in our seats to catch sight of the elephants and zebras parading down the Opera House's newly remodeled aisles.

All of which explains the 22 semi-trailers, the 39 actors, the 250 puppets, the 4,600 channels on the lighting console -- and the 120,000 Opera House seats waiting to be filled with theatergoers like the child beside you and the child who lingers as a memory inside you.

Because if an experience is truly communal and uplifting, people will work to create it, and they will seek it out. They'll go to the theater if it means participating in an event that takes them out of themselves and into something big.

Those giraffes are 18 feet tall. The Lion King is something big.

The Lion King will roar all the way from tonight (Oct. 27) through Dec. 4 on Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 pm and 6:30 pm. (Schedule remains the same through Thanksgiving week; no 6:30 pm performance on Sunday, Dec. 4.) Tickets: $27.50-$72.50 (depending on date and time), with selected tickets at $127.50. Spokane Opera House, 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. Visit or call 325-SEAT.

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