Roaring after all these years

'The Lion King' still relevant and stunning

July 05, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun theater critic

The national touring production of The Lion King that has stalked into the Kennedy Center is a reminder of just what a seminal piece of theater this 10-year-old show continues to be.

So prodigious is director Julie Taymor's visual imagination, so generous is her spirit, that it makes most other Broadway hits (such as the recent blockbuster Wicked, or even In the Heights, which won this year's Tony Award for best musical) seem like they are weak and insipid and candidates for being culled from the herd.

Taymor literally makes the audience see the world in a new way. Who but she would represent sunlight slanting through layers of dust by thick bolts of orange cloth hung diagonally from the ceiling?

After a while, of course, strictly sensory pleasures begin to wane; if you've seen one giraffe with stilts for legs, you've seen them all.

If The Lion King continues to be as moving today as it was in 1998, it's primarily because of the political subtext that emerges gradually from all that lush visual imagery.

This Disney musical, originally an animated film, is a retelling of Hamlet in a form suitable for children: There is a deposed king treacherously murdered by his brother who usurps the throne, a son who vows revenge and even a ghost who provides the necessary motivation at the crucial moment.

The audience begins to sense the director's purpose the moment that Mufasa, the father of the cub, Simba, takes the stage. As played by actor Dionne Randolph, Mufasa is a noble creature - strong, compassionate and brave. He is the epitome of everything that a man should be, and his relationship with Simba is a model of tender parenting.

Best of all, this paragon, this object of the audience's veneration and respect, is portrayed by a black actor. Because the actors wear their animal masks atop their heads, like hats, and the audience can see their faces, Randolph's humanity is always on full display.

Remember that the characters in T he Lion King are animals - lions, hyenas and birds, with a monkey and wart hog thrown in for good measure. Animals don't have a skin tone, but, as Taymor realized, there's every reason to cast a black actor in that role in an age when too many black children - and in particular, boys - grow up without fathers.

The performance I saw contained several understudies, but the characters are so iconic that it doesn't much matter, and the cast is uniformly strong. Singing honors go to Dan'yelle Williamson as the lioness Nala, though Washington native Marquis Moss (filling in for the adult Simba) and Phindile Mkhize (as the monkey/griot Rafiki) also possess fine sets of pipes.

As Simba's villainous uncle, Scar, Timothy Carter is not as menacing as other actors who have filled the role, but Tony Freeman is in fine comic form as the feather-brained factotum, Zazu.

An occasional song feels extraneous. "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," in which young Simba and young Nala ride atop fanciful puppets, has no narrative purpose or connection to the mysterious, harsh and beautiful Africa that Taymor so painstakingly re-creates.

But the lapses are small and, in the grand scheme of things, inconsequential. The Lion King isn't just a sweet show. It's an important one.

If you go

The Lion King runs at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington, through Aug. 24. The run is sold out, but check with the box office for returned tickets. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 1:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets cost $25-$150. Call 202-467-4600 or go to

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.