'The Lion King' Review: Disney Neo-Classic Still Soars on Stage

Disney’s animated wonder “The Lion King” proved it could survive the transition to 3D earlier this year. The celebrated musical of the same name is equally nimble in bringing its magical puppetry to stages across the country.

The Lion King,” winner of six 1998 Tony Awards, follows the by-now familiar story of a lion cub named Simba (Niles Fitch) who endures the loss of his father (Dionne Randolph) at the hands of his wicked uncle Scar (J. Anthony Crane).

Lion King Broadway

A guilt-ridden Simba leaves his home and grows into a hearty young lion. When he bumps into a pair of life-affirming creatures named Timon and Pumbaa, he decides to reclaim his rightful place as king of his jungle and revenge his father’s death.

The tale may feel a tad musty after too many viewings of the 1994 animated film, but the stage presentation crackles with a combination of visual majesty and earnest performances.

Yes, Randolph and Crane are mimicking the stellar vocal work of the animated film’s actors, James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons, respectively. But the stage actors aren’t content with bland impersonations. They bring a vitality to the production mirrored by the outstanding artistry around them.

Every scene in “The Lion King” boasts a wondrous puppet creation, a rousing musical chant or a dance number evoking the mystery of the African continent. Performers dance up and down the aisles en route to the stage, from massive elephants to singers adorned in African garb. It’s an all-encompassing experience, a style of wholesome storytelling geared for all ages.

The inventive animal contraptions make sure there’s always something wondrous to behold, but the true marvel is how the puppetry gear worn by Crane and co. enhance their performances.

The songs, alas, remain an uneven bunch despite the potent brand of Elton John and Tim Rice. For every rousing number like “Circle of Life,” there are too many others which feel like place holders. Far better are the African chants which open the production and help bridge several key sequences in the musical.

Act II benefits from the lively exchanges by Timon and Pumbaa (Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz), the scene-stealers immortalized the goofy sing-along “Hakuna Matata.” They, too, rely heavily on the animated source material, but their collective comic timing is impeccable.

The current tour, the first since the show last hit the road in 2002, is playing at The Buell Theatre in Denver through Dec. 4 before moving on to Baltimore, Minneapolis, Richmond, New Orleans, Orlando, Miami, Greenville, Houston and St. Louis.

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