I still bawl every time I see 'The Circle of Life,' " says Garth Fagan. "I know every step, I know every note, and I still bawl like a child because it is so beautiful."
Assuming "The Lion King" choreographer is beyond hyperbole -- he turns 69 on Sunday and says he is "too old to say things I don't mean" -- then Fagan has shed a lot of tears.
"The Lion King" has played in New York nearly 12 years. The Disney musical opened in October 1997, and now is one of Broadway's longest-running hits. But its creators never stray too far from Pride Rock.
Director Julie Taymor is busy readying the new Broadway version of "Spider-Man" for a January debut. But Fagan -- an affable Jamaican who runs his own New York dance troupe -- is among the key collaborators keeping tabs on Mandalay Bay's new "Lion King." It opens for ticketed previews Tuesday with a grand opening May 15.
An open-ended run on the Las Vegas Strip is just the latest unlikely turn for the musical, which didn't even seem credible after the animated movie version opened big in 1994.
"We used to joke about it: 'This won't be done on the stage,' " recalls Roger Allers, the movie's co-writer and co-director. People made wisecracks about "Simba on Ice," or "Big Cats."
Most people now understand it's quite the opposite. Taymor's innovative use of abstract theater and puppetry transformed the movie -- already "a fairy tale that has some very dark moments," as co-writer Irene Mecchi says -- into an even more substantial, sophisticated work.
"I've heard from people who said, 'I took the kids because I thought it was going to be a kids' show.' Then you look at them when the elephant's coming down the aisle, and the adults are looking like kids!" Allers says with a laugh. "Their eyes are all big, and their mouths are open. It's very satisfying."
Allers and Mecchi made the rare jump from screen writing to adapting their own movie for the stage after early meetings with Taymor. "You guys still have these characters in your head. Why am I thinking about hiring writers?" Allers remembers her saying.
Many years later, the two still guide each new cast through table readings, to "make sure the characters are all calibrated and they're playing them the way they're intended to be played," Mecchi says.
The writers expanded the 88-minute movie into a two-act saga -- which won't be cut for Las Vegas -- that echoes "Hamlet": Young lion cub Simba (Duane Ervin alternating with Elijah Johnson) is manipulated by his evil uncle Scar (Thom Sesma) into events resulting in the death of his father (Alton F. White), the king of the lion pride.
The young lion grows up in exile and denial, frolicking with comic sidekicks Timon (Damian Baldet) and Pumba (Adam Kozlowski), until childhood friend Nala (Kissy Simmons) convinces the adult Simba (Clifton Oliver) to take responsibility and save his abandoned friends from desperate times.
"Everybody has one uncle they can do without," Fagan says with a chuckle at the story's universal themes. "You make a mistake, you go away, you come back and you redeem yourself and correct it."
Taymor brought the jungle to life with a key concept: Costumes are merged with expressionistic puppetry. The audience sees the actors manipulating the mechanics of their costume exoskeletons.
"I wanted audiences to be released from their memories of the film right from the start. I wanted them to take a leap of faith and imagination," Taymor writes in the book "Pride Rock on Broadway." "Audiences relish the artifice of theater. ... Magic can exist in blatantly showing how theater is created rather than hiding the 'how.' "
"It's that double event. You get animal and you get human," Fagan notes. "She always wanted a duality between puppet and person, which is why she had the person so visible."
Fagan was hired after Taymor saw the choreographer's "Griot New York" collaboration with Wynton Marsalis.
Like his genre-hopping Garth Fagan Dance troupe, the choreographer wanted "Lion King" to have "all styles of dancing in the show: modern, hip-hop, ballet, African-Caribbean, so that a child coming to this show could see the wide range of what's available in dance."
When he first heard the p-word, "I was a little concerned, because I had never worked with puppets before," and he hadn't seen the film because his children already were grown.
But Fagan brought something else to the mix: many visits to Africa. That fit right in with African musical elements being pulled from background score to the forefront, "dialing that way up so that you have this sort of pop music enhanced by the source music that inspired it," Mecchi says.
At the first day of local rehearsals March 9, the assembled cast members were urged by Thomas Schumacher, the lively head of Disney Theatricals, to get to know the nine South Africans in the cast. "From them, you will learn a great deal about the soul of 'The Lion King.' "
On this day, however, the cast is learning about the nuances of animal behavior. "Detail gets lost in a hurry. And detail makes all the difference in the world," Fagan explains.
"If the lioness is going to do this -- " he throws his arms out from his shoulders, "that has force and power. But it's easier to do this ---" he says, repeating the same lunge with a weak snap from the elbows.
He is happy with the Las Vegas cast. "They're so top-shelf that some steps we took out of the original choreography because some of the touring companies weren't quite up to it, we put 'em back in."
Fagan is just there to help lions remember, "They broadcast to the animal that 'I'm going to get you.' They creep up and boom! It's too late. They're dead.
"You've got to keep that stuff going," he says. "I love it, and I want to see it done well."
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.