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THEATER REVIEW (By Kathie Raleigh): 'The Lion King' still rules

February 8, 2011

PROVIDENCE — Even the second time around, Disney’s “The Lion King’ is an eye-popping spectacle.
The King first visited the Providence Performing Arts Center in 2005 and blew us away with its imaginative staging, evocative African rhythms and even its simple story of good vs. evil.
The nationally touring production that has returned to PPAC through Feb. 20 is just as spectacular. There is not much that can beat the excitement of the opening “Circle of Life” when the “animals” — including gangly giraffes, a life-sized elephant and a flock of white birds — make their entrances on stage and down the aisles of the theater, close to the audience.
While that experience is mostly about costumes and presence, the really good news is that this production keeps up the emotion in the story, from the father-son relationship between the reigning Lion King, Mufasa, and his heir, Simba, to a warmly expressed relationship between the grown-up Simba and his childhood playmate, Nala.
As for the music, the orchestra in the pit is live but recording-perfect. Percussionists set up on either side of the stage, moreover, offer an interesting visual element; so that’s how that jingly, rain-water sound is made.
Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice wrote five songs for the show, and Hans Zimmer wrote the score, which most effectively uses traditional African music and choral elements arranged by Lebo M. The result is an appealing contrast between catchy pop hooks and mesmerizing, rhythmic vocals.
The stage show is based on the 1994 animated Disney film and tells the story of Simba, the lion cub destined to be King of the Pridelands. When the story opens, he’s just a cub, whose father is grooming for leadership — and whose uncle, Scar, miffed at losing his place in the line of succession, is leading into trouble.
Scar succeeds well enough that Simba runs away for many years, returning only when he matures, puts his past behind him and accepts his responsibility to the pride of lions that is his family.
All the characters are animals, and the actors have inventive costumes, masks and puppets created by the original director, Julie Taymor, and designer Michael Curry, to portray them.
Giraffes walk on stilts, antelope travel in groups on wheeled contraptions that express their loping movement, and birds fly from wires — all powered by clearly visible humans. The lions wear headdresses that allow the actors to use facial expressions but that fall menacingly in front of them when they prowl.
Amazing costumes don’t negate the need for good acting, and there is plenty in this production. Derrick Davis as Mufasa is regal yet nurturing with the young Simba, a role performed on different nights by two children. Thursday’s performance was by Dusan Brown Jr., who used every fiber of his tiny body to express Simba’s many moods.
When Simba grows up, Adam Jacobs takes over the role and is good with the adolescent devil-may-care attitude as well as Simba’s growing sense of responsibility.
It’s impossible not to like Simba’s comical but loyal buddies Timon, the meerkat, and Pumbaa, the warthog. Nick Cordileone has an expressive, wise-guy voice and does a good job with the Timon puppet that is affixed to his body. Ben Lipitz as Pumbaa is a wonderfully good-natured sidekick.
Syndee Winters is most lioness-like in her movements as the adult Nala and has good chemistry with Jacobs.
She also has a lovely voice. Expressive voices are the norm among all the actors, and the African-influenced choral numbers are gorgeous.
Brenda Mhlongo as the baboon-shaman Rafiki stands out for her effortless control and melodic sound.
The spectacle is the attraction when seeing Disney’s “The Lion King” the first time, and the costumes, music, acting and storytelling are reasons to return for a second time — or more.
Performances continue through Feb. 20 at PPAC, 220 Weybosset St. Tickets start at $28 and are available at the box office, by calling (401) 421-ARTS and online at ppacri.org.

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