During Saturday's opening-night performance of The Lion King (through Dec. 4 at the Opera House), the sound quality and spotlight steadiness wavered in a few places. In "Hakuna Matata," Young Simba didn't swing out on a vine so as to set up the Tarzan-exuberant first entrance of Simba the young man. After the Timon doll fell to its "death" on the waterfall, a stagehand could be seen crawling out on hands and knees -- out there among the crocodiles -- to retrieve it.
But those are just missteps in a particular performance. The script itself has flaws. The "trickster" characters that accompany Young Simba and Young Nala during "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," while colorful, seem silly. By the time the child actors came out riding atop enormous birds, all I could visualize was a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and badly decorated floats.
The vaudeville routine that Timon and Pumbaa break into at the start of the final Simba/Scar face-off is badly misjudged. Clearly, the Disney folks felt a need to lighten the mood, and they're right in an important way: Both audiences I was part of laughed and applauded. But it has been established that the meerkat and warthog are a comedy team. The pink-feather-boa nonsense descends into silliness and cheapens the good-vs.-evil combat that follows.
Another overly silly moment arrives in one of the Elton John tunes added to the stage show, "The Morning Report." As Zazu, Derek Hasenstab's rubber-limbed dexterity, puppetry skills and vocal inflections are amazing. But other dialogue has already conveyed that the Pridelands are vast and that Mufasa has a lighter side.
It's not just that director Julie Taymor (or Disney cajoling Taymor) isn't trusting the kids to cope with the more serious or lyrical or tragic plot events; she and they aren't trusting the adults. There's so much good comic byplay in this show (Zazu telling off the usurper in "The Madness of King Scar," for example), that we don't need entire comic numbers to hold our fears at bay.
Proof of that arrives late in the show, when The Lion King book juxtaposes serious and comic moments. When Rafiki (the baboon woman) intuits that Simba has survived, she exclaims, "He's alive!" -- and the next line of dialogue has Pumbaa waddling in, frightened of an unfamiliar lioness (Nala) and screaming, "She's gonna eat me!" Life/death: the gift of life, more precious for being snatched away from death; our fears of death made less frightening by the needless fretting of the worrywart warthog. That's the way to balance the profound and the ludicrous -- not by inserting a contrived comic musical number, but by juxtaposing moments and letting the audience make the connection.
On a second viewing (having seen the show once already in Portland), I noticed even more strengths than weaknesses. When a predominately white audience watches South Africans (and African-Americans) celebrate their cultural heritage, for example, the circle of life widens.
The lionesses' choreography was delightful too: swirls, leaps, legs brought to horizontal, hip thrusts, those elegant and stoic masks atop their heads, that fabric billowing behind them as they scurried across the savanna -- Garth Fagan's dance designs are powerful. One of my companions commented that the lions in this show had something to learn about feline movement from the cast of Cats. But I disagree. There the goal is impersonation; here, Taymor wants the human only partly submerged in the animal.
Speaking of joyous choreography, check out the energy of the three lead dancers and singers in "One by One," the entr'acte number that reappears so forcefully (even when you know it's coming) at the end of "He Lives in You." When you think of eight shows a week and what-city-are-we-in-now? and the same old routine every night, these men get the award.
Ta'Rea Campbell transformed "Shadowland" from a quiet ballad to a forceful plea. While her projection wavered a bit in "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," here she was persuasive and defiant, fulfilling Taymor's intention of having forceful women more prominent in The Lion King's stage version.
The aerial ballet during "Can You Feel," just as beautiful, seemed unduly short: Understanding its symbolism better (three couples embodying friendly, romantic and erotic love), I just wanted that episode to go on and on. It's a Peter Pan kind of moment, conveying the dream we all have of freedom from responsibility, of being able just to fly. It's a bit of Cirque du Soleil, strengthened by narrative.
A quick list of all the other additional things I enjoyed about The Lion King: the Simba and Nala puppets chasing through the grass held aloft; Rafiki's extended joke; the swirling elephant-graveyard bones; the gray palette for the sterility of the hyenas; those giant banana leaves flown in from above; the way Nala, upon being reunited with Simba, leaps at and straddles him, hinting for a moment at the eroticism to come; and a couple of light shifts that simply had me scribbling "green!" and "blue!"
We were in the expensive seats in Portland but in the really expensive seats here in Spokane. What else can you see when you zoom in?
We could see the detail on the shadow puppets better -- how Simba's tail wagged, how the mouse reared up on its tiny back-projected legs. Zazu is even funnier when you see how well Hasenstab manipulates the hornbill's face. The way Pumbaa's tongue wags and ears move. Mufasa's stylized, leonine movements. The moments when father and uncle put their claws on Young Simba's chest -- Mufasa protectively, Scar maliciously. During "They Live in You," the way Rufus Bonds Jr. as Mufasa gazes up at all the stars representing his ancestors, gestures as if to catch a falling star, and then places it, lovingly, next to Simba's heart. I'd also missed, during the jungle sequences, just how many people are dressed as plants. (Which sounds like a bad Fruit of the Loom commercial, I know. But the plant/people merger echoes Taymor's animal-in-the-human motif. We are all one, involved in all creation. Yes, the Circle of Life links you and me and that shrub over there.)
The Lion King has many beauties, and it appeals to our imaginations by staging wonderful spectacles. One danger of L.K. mania, however, is that it reinforces lots of folks' preconception that theater is a spectacle and nothing more. But theater can appeal to our imaginations on a small scale, too. On Friday night, during Interplayers' The Mystery of Irma Vep (see review, page 28), I saw two actors on a bare stage imitate a hair-raising "descent" into an Egyptian tomb that was just as funny -- and made just as much use of the audience's imagination -- as anything in The Lion King. The Disney spectacular has gotten a lot of people, but the circle of theater is wider than just one show.