The creative unity of Disney’s The Lion King is greater than even its wonderful parts. Its greatness, more than any blockbuster musical before, requires no starring celebrities; its success was assured before casting.
And its magic begins in the very beginning, when the sage monkey woman Rafiki, a South African named Nteliseng Nkhela, slashes the air with her piercing call to all the other creatures.. The animals enter, portraying the “Circle of Life.” Gazelles leap, birds circle, a cheetah prowls, the tall giraffes amble and the rhino and elephant lumber up the aisles.
In other words, the genius of Julie Taymor is immediately on display. She not only directed the award-winning production which has returned for its second long run at the Orpheum, she won a Tony award for its costumes and played a large part in designing the masks and puppets. But her enormous role in the sum of this theatrical experience frees the talents on stage to charm the audience with song and dance.
Rafiki, whose soaring songs in native tongue are the iconic voice of this show, wins us over from the outset. We’re soon smitten with the young cub Simba and the young lioness Nala (Zavion Hill and Kailah McFadden), and ready to enjoy despising Simba’s villainous uncle Scar (Timothy Carter), who with the bird Zazu (borne and voiced by Mark David Kaplan) are the main characters involved throughout the story.
Again, the magic of the masks and puppetry allows them to exist only on stage. You’d be unlikely to recognize any of them at the cast party that followed the first Thursday night performance.
How did it compare with the original visit provided by Omaha Performing Arts six years ago? For this viewer, it seemed surprisingly fresh and new. Sure, the characters, Rafiki’s voice, the lion masks, the elephant up the aisle, all seemed familiar, as well as the Elton John music and Tim Rice lyrics.
But Garth Fagan’s choreography drew more attention, and the jungle cat poses of the young cub and lioness were especially appealing. It goes back to all the intangibles that comprise the spirit of this unique creation, epitomized by what Taymor calls the “double event,” presenting the lion king Mufasa (Dionne Randolph) and Scar, for example, with both symbolic lion masks and the human faces of the actors.
It works well when a grown-up Nala (Syndee Winters) encounters a grown-up Simba (Jelani Remy), permitting both their encounter as predatory strangers and their reunion as long-separated childhood friends and mates-to-be.
The magic of the costuming and puppetry makes it easy to accept Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz) the flatulent wart hog and the meerkat Timon (Nick Cordeleone) as delightful comic relief untroubled with realism. Add the free-dangling jaws of the laughing hyenas (whimsically named Banzai, Shenzi and Ed) and the rest of the jungle beasts, buzzards and a five-inch mouse jabbed by Scar’s cane.
It was an interesting coincidence that the big show arrived in Omaha shortly after Omaha Performing Arts announced its new season with the presence of Joey the War Horse, another marvelous “puppet,” though that term seems unworthy of the heroic equine.
That World War I drama also features other puppetry, including an officious goose and crows. But it’s pointless to compare The Lion King to other plays or even the musicals which share in its success as measured by attendance and international scope. Suffice it to say, only Les Miserables has spread so fully around the globe.
One fact the Disney people like to mention: By grossing over $5 billion it tops such film triumphs as The Lord of the Rings trilogy combined, six Star Wars films combined, and more than the two highest-grossing films, Avatar and Titanic, combined.
And, of course, its first five-week Omaha visit set local box office records.
Disney’s The Lion King runs through April 7 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays as part of the Omaha Performing Arts Broadway Across America series at the Orpheum Theatre, 409 S. 16th St. Tickets range from $35 to $165. Call 402.345.0606 or toll-free 866.434.8587, or visit ticketomaha.com or the Holland Center at 13th and Douglas Streets.