From the first drum beats of "The Lion King," your senses are assaulted with creative wonders that don't quit until the final bows. As you settle into your seat, you can feast your eyes on the spectacular animal puppets on parade and see mouths circle into "wows" as a humongous elephant ambles down a Benedum Center aisle.
By the time the population of the African savanna has reached the stage for the "Circle of Life" scene, "The Lion King" has cast its magic spell and you may as well just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Julie Taymor's visionary designs have been around since 1997, yet they never cease to delight and amaze.
That gathering of stilted giraffes, graceful leopards and leaping antelopes welcomes the birth of Simba, adored son of lion King Mufasa. Simba begins as a Disney animal prince in the tradition of Bambi -- after the heartbreaking loss of a parent, he is left on his own at a young age before finding friendship and love and assuming his rightful role atop Pride Rock, the emblematic castle of the lion king. "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" is the anthem of cheeky cub Simba (Nathanial Logan McIntyre), "Hakuna Matata" is the adolescent slacker Simba (Jelani Remy), and the reprise of "Circle of Life" finds him a young man achieving his destiny.
What's a great Disney story without a dastardly villain and his henchmen? As voiced by Jeremy Irons in the animated film, lean, mean Scar rivals Shakespeare's greatest betrayers -- notably Claudius, Hamlet's uncle who commits fratricide to take the throne. Patrick R. Brown as Simba's Uncle Scar plays it nice and creepy as he reveals his murderous plans to the heinous hyenas that do his bidding.
It also helps that the show boasts a wisecracking meerkat and a lovable if gassy warthog that belong in the comic sidekick Hall of Fame. Loyal Timon and Pumba -- Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz -- help to keep the tone light, even as the story turns several shades of dark at times. They are matched on that front by Andrew Gorell as Mufasa's majordomo Zazu, a perfect match of comic timing and fine-feathered puppeteering, while Brown Lindiwe Mkhize as Rafiki lends an air of joy and authenticity to the spirit guide of the savanna.
"The Lion King" book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi balances heavy drama with humor that appeals to young and old. It has the advantage of some memorable songs by Elton John and Tim Rice from the animated film that inspired the show, and additional tunes for the musical. Favorite lines from the movie translate well to the stage and still seem fresh after repeated viewings. I still laugh in anticipation when Timon, seeing Simba's devastated kingdom, says, "Talk about your fixer-uppers."
It's Ms. Taymor's remarkable costume and puppet designs, working with Michael Curry and scenic designer Richard Hudson, that have elevated the musical to a must-see wherever it goes.
When Mufasa is hurled to his death under a stampede of wildebeests, we're treated to a neat bit of stage magic that lends perspective to the scene. Like Scar's chilling "Be Prepared" message to the hyenas, it's also among the scenes that may be disturbing to young children, even if they have been forewarned by seeing the movie or other deep, dark Disney renditions of fairy-tale traumas that precede happily-ever-after.
Scar convinces Simba that he's to blame for his father's death, and the boy runs away, leaving the pride lands to Scar, the hyenas and a ruinous future.
He finds a relative paradise with Timon and Pumba before he is reminded by Nala (Nia Holloway) and a vision of his father that it's time to go home and reclaim his birthright.
"The Lion King," long may it reign, arrives in Pittsburgh as king of the road. It holds records for a North American touring company in addition to being the top money-earner on Broadway and the Benedum Center. Coming into the four-week run that ends Sept. 29, the show played six-week, sold-out engagements at the Benedum in 2004 and 2008.
The touring musical in Pittsburgh through Sept. 29 is not a duplicate of the movie or Broadway, having been pared down to about two hours and 40 minutes with intermission.
But "The Lion King" has not lost its touch.
The enormity of the production -- dozens of puppets huge and small, and the Pride Rock set, for instance -- make the tour a massive undertaking, but it roars on without losing any of its Disney magic. The 1998 live version was crowned Broadway's best musical, after the 1994 animated movie introduced the award-winning John & Rice songs and orchestrations by Hans Zimmer.
All won Oscars, including for best original song, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"
Everywhere "The Lion King" goes, it feels the love.theater
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published September 7, 2013 4:15 AM