“The Lion King” continues to offer a stunning visual spectacle

Review: "The Lion King" continues to mesmerize audiences through most of its performances that include new choreography and orchestrations for its 20th anniversary tour.

Editors note: This review originally appeared on Green Room Reviews on Oct. 31.

The story of “The Lion King” has been a part of childhoods since 1994. Three years after the movie came out, creator and director Julie Taymor wowed audiences with the stage musical version on Broadway. With “The Lion King” opening its 20th anniversary tour in Syracuse, her life-like creations have almost begun to take on a life of their own. Taymor may have created something so much larger than life that, after two decades, actors have a difficult time living up to it.

Photo: Joan Marcus
Nia Holloway as Nala and The Lionesses in THE LION KING North American Tour. ©Disney.

The show is still gorgeous. Even with a revamped production that allows for performances in smaller venues, the visuals remain undeniably impressive. The colorful creatures in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” in Act One and the appearance of Mufasa in the night sky in Act Two are prominent examples. The musical takes on an almost balletic quality at times, with a bare stage and dancers in beautiful costumes moving to orchestral or simple choral musical numbers. Add in the use of puppetry and it becomes a demonstrative form of storytelling.

That is where some of the disconnect begins for this production. Some performances work so hard to match this heightened form of storytelling that they lose track of the emotional honesty of the story. This leads to some operatically over the top performances. Throughout the first act, characters lost track of what was honestly happening for their characters as they relied on the visuals to tell the story. The most prominent example is Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa. Ramsey’s attempts at grandiosity lack the honesty needed to ground what should be an emotional arc for Simba’s father.

That said, the second act absolutely takes flight thanks in no small part to outstanding performances by Gerald Caesar (Simba), Nick Cordileone (Timon) and Nia Holloway (Nala). Cordileone and Ben Lipitz (Pumbaa) bring the perfect levity needed at the end of an otherwise lethargic first Act which carries into Act Two. Their partnership on stage has the ease of two people who have been friends since birth. Their comedic timing also cannot be undersold. What is truly impressive, though — and this is again a credit to Taymor’s original vision — is how effortlessly Cordileone could bring the Timon puppet to life and allow himself as the actor to fade, sometimes literally, into the background.

Caesar and Holloway have a similar effortless connection on stage, but it is their featured songs that elevate their individual performances. Holloway in “Shadowland” and Caesar in “Endless Night” both find an earnestness that is missing throughout the rest of the show. Caesar especially finds a sense of innocence that makes it incredibly easy to understand why Simba is so willing to reject his past and stay with Timon and Pumbaa. But with that, Caesar also brings a feeling of obligation and determination that is worthy of rooting for him to be king.

In all, Taymor’s creation is about the visual aesthetic and, even 20 years later, it is still performing at an excellent level. Whether it is the shimmering sun rising over the pride lands, a wildebeest stampede that continually draws nearer, or a blanket of stars giving way to Mufasa’s otherworldly presence, Donald Holder’s lighting design and Richard Hudson’s set design work in perfect union. Despite the occasional lack of emotional connection, music director Jamie Schmidt does Elton John, Tim Rice, and Lebo M complete justice by providing beautiful music that can whisk anyone back a couple of decades to when they first experienced “The Lion King.”

Really, that is what it is all about: the experience. “The Lion King,” after all of this time, continues to deliver. After the adjustments that were made to accommodate smaller spaces — which seems to include cutting a few of the animals from the group scenes to fit on smaller stages — the show should continue to entertain audiences for years to come. The word of warning here is young children should be prepared. Act one may feel a bit slow for them. It can feel like a long time between the opening “Circle of Life” and the sixth scene’s “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” But, that is the price to pay for allowing the visual spectacle that Taymor created in 1997 to take hold.

Disney's "The Lion King" will run through Nov. 12 at the Landmark Theatre in Syracuse, NY. Tickets are available at the Landmark Theatre box office or online at Broadway in Syracuse.

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