The bottom line
From the legendary opening scene in which almost-life-sized animals sashay through the "savanna" and onto the stage, to the final notes of a universal lesson taking hold, The Lion King — a Tony-award-winner with a 16-year Broadway run — is both magical in a 21st century way and deeply satisfying on an age-old level.
Adults and children alike will watch this production (playing at Seattle's Paramount Theatre through April 6) in awe and not soon forget the part-African, part-mythical landscape it brings to life.
"It's the best show you'll ever see."
"The costumes are unbelievable."
Those were some of the reactions I got when I told friends I was finally going to see The Lion King and taking my daughter. It turns out they all rang true.
A familiar coming-of-age fable, the plot follows a youngster, Simba, who is cast out from his community after his father, Mufasa, dies. Simba must find his inner strength and learn who he is (with the help of dear friends, who teach loyalty and courage) in order to grow up. The story is simple enough for a 5- or 6-year-old to understand.
The true magic of this production — what sets it apart from most other grand-scale shows, and the real reason to spend a pretty penny to take your family — is, hands down, the costumes and masks and puppets.
Director-designer Julie Taymor (who worked with puppet expert Michael Curry) had to figure out how to translate Disney's beloved animated characters into recognizable yet authentic theatrical forms that drew from their African roots and that could convey a key sense of magical realism to both adult and child).
The result is spectacular: Three-dimensional masks worn over the actors' heads but not covering their faces thatgivethe viewer the almost-disconcerting experience of watching both the "animal" face and the human one; bunraku and shadow puppets animated with life; stunning costumes created with African-styled beadwork, corsets, armor and cloth; 18-foot giraffes, leaping gazelles and fatty rhinos that glide realistically around the stage.
"When the human spirit visibly animates an object, we experience a special, almost life-giving connection," Taymor says. "We become engaged by both the method of storytelling as well as the story itself."
Dramatic lighting and bold sets help transport the viewer to a range of places, both dark and light, across the savanna. The dancing is impossibly gorgeous. And of course the Elton John and Tim Rice music is salve for the ears and a certain break from "Let It Go" mania (at least for this Frozen-weary mom).
Our favorite characters were Rafiki (Brown Lindiwe Mkhize) — the all-knowing baboon who narrates the central story of the Circle of Life, and Zazu (Andrew Gorrell), the funny hornbill majordomo.
Parents should know
There are some mildly scary scenes: Those familiar with the animated film will know how mean slobbering, singing hyenas are and how foreboding life beyond the Pridelands can be, and Mufasa is killed by his evil brother (though in a semi-vague and non-bloody manner). But if your child can handle the movie, they can likely handle the play.
Fun facts to share with kids
- Artisans spent 17,000 hours to build the anthropomorphic animal characters for the original Broadway production.
- There are six indigenous African languages spoken in the show: Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa (the click language), Sotho, Tswana and Congolese.
- The 20 headdresses worn by actors to evoke the African grasslands require 3,000 stalks of grass (60 pounds) for yearly upkeep and maintenance.
- Pee early. And if you need to pee again, bolt first right at intermission. The Paramount ladies' room line is as long as the Nile. (There is another bathroom upstairs, if you feel like hiking to the next village.)
- Arrive with enough time to spare to snag your child a seat booster cushion.
Photo credits: Nia Holloway as Nala and Jelani Remy as Simba, and Brown Lindiwe Mkhize as Rafiki in the opening number “The Circle of Life, THE LION KING National Tour. ©Disney. Photo: Joan Marcus.