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The Tentacle


June 7, 2005

"Lion King" Really Roars

Roy Meachum

All those glorious reports about Disney's "The Lion King" are true. Baltimore's gloriously restored Hippodrome Theatre has found a show worthy of the setting. Before sharing my thoughts, let me address the central question readers and listeners have.

Anybody who cares about live theatre should hock the family diamonds, mortgage the farm and do whatever necessary to get tickets this summer for what turns out to be literally a breathtaking evening. The prices do not come cheap, but group rates are available. Put simply: this "Lion King" is a once in a lifetime experience.

For nearly three hours Saturday's opening night audience was alternately amazed, delighted and mesmerized by the tale that many knew from the animated film of the same name.

In essence, director-designer Julie Taymor has created dimensions totally beyond the reach of any movie, even one that amassed virtually a billion dollars around the world. In the process, Ms. Taymor additionally takes stage craft where it has never been before, not to these depths and heights.

Scanning memories of my years reviewing, I can come up with a single production that left a similar impression. I was among the fortunate few that saw "Man of La Mancha" in its original form: told on multi-level platforms in ANTA's Washington Square temporary home, which was torn down immediately after the run. It was replaced by the Lincoln Center. That was nearly 40 years ago.

At its best, however, that "Man of La Mancha" barely suggested the potential realized by Julie Taymor, choreographer Garth Fagan and their collaborators, especially the men, women and children on stage, which extends to balconies and aisles.

If there were imperfection in Saturday's performance, it escaped me, but like everyone else seemed to be, I was much immersed in the fantasy. And no wonder. I've never before had an elephant rush down beside my shoulder, trailing behind such a fascinating collection of critters, including birds flying directly over my head.

How many critters? A fact sheet provides numbers: over 200 puppets, on rods, casting shadows and standing full-sized. Twenty five kinds of animals: birds, fishes and even insects along with the four-legged sort. It took 15,000 hours and over six months to fashion the puppets and mask. In other words, whatever you wind up paying, you're getting real value for your dollar.

Not touted but also present: Ms. Taymor brings roaring back from the Italian commedia dell'arte, which generated modern theatre. Breaking away from morality plays obedient to the church, the Renaissance productions were long on masks, costumes, puppets and extravagance, exactly like her "Lion King." On the other hand, the director-designer takes advantage of technology to create effects that would have had her burned as a witch, even in those enlightened times.

The story has been told many a time and oft; I even saw an elementary school version. A young lion is robbed of his heritage. An evil uncle kills his father and dupes his nephew into exile. The grown-up cub returns to capture his throne but not before battling the villain's hyena allies, with the aid of the other animals. At the end, once again, "The Lion King" rules all he surveys from his mountain top.

Be warned: Nothing said here can really prepare you for the literally fantastic event waiting a short distance away, in Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre. Yesterday was not too soon to order tickets. Setting a date well in advance will add anticipation to the pleasure.

To sum up my reaction: Wow!

PS: Listen to WFMD's morning show with Bob Miller at 8:40 A.M. this Friday if you would like to hear my enthusiasm out loud.



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