Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Lion King, PlayhouseSquare

(Tshidi Manye as Rafiki)

There’s a reason The Lion King is one of the top five longest running Broadway shows. It’s a bulletproof stage franchise that can withstand infinite cast changes and never lose its core ability to awe and inspire.

While this version now at PlayhouseSquare has a couple wrinkles that past touring shows have avoided, the takeaway for repeat visitors or virgins is still basically the same: The Lion King rules.

From the opening “Circle of Life” parade of creatures, featuring the jaw-dropping human-animal hybrid puppetry imagined by director Julie Taymor (and Michael Curry), your imagination is fully engaged.

Of course, the story follows a predictable arc as the lion pup Simba grows into adulthood after his father Mufasa is lured to his death by his evil little brother Scar. Simba and Scar are destined to snarl at each other until their final showdown, resolved in true Disney fashion.

Sure, L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa and Patrick R. Brown as Scar are no James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons (the original voice actors for those parts in the animated film), but they deliver all the heft required. And Brown snarls his craven lion’s sarcasm with poisonous bile.

The younger actors don’t quite pluck the heartstrings as they have in the past. But the comedy duo of Timon the meerkat (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa the gastric disaster/warthog sweep up all the laughs as they tiptoe around their new lion pals.

The music by Elton John and Tim Rice is, as always, powerful and uplifting, with Tshidi Manye as the storyteller Rafiki adding some signature squeaks and trills to her captivating performance.

The only characters that are a bit disappointing are the three hyenas, who deliver a lot of laugh lines. Amid all their laughing and cackling, the lines often are muffled and indistinguishable.

However that articulation slack is taken up by Andrew Gorell. He plays the hornbill Zazu, the King’s chief advisor, with wry good humor and perfect enunciation.

In the dense jungle of Broadway musicals, The Lion King has earned it’s lofty status as one of the most popular shows ever. And every visit here just reinforces that honored position.

The Lion King
Through August 4 at PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

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