‘Lion King’ balances adult artistry with kid-friendly plot

While waiting for the Smith Center to open in March, you still have two months to see "The Lion King" at Mandalay Bay.

The two are related. Once Las Vegas joins the circuit of "normal cities" with performing arts centers, it’s likely to host Broadway blockbusters such as "The Lion King" much earlier in their careers, but only for a week or two; maybe eight performances instead of the 1,000 the cast at Mandalay Bay planned to toast Thursday night.

Casinos are likely to lose interest in most Broadway musicals, particularly the family fare, after this alleged underperformer didn’t quite jibe with its casino setting. Strong business during the summer and for weekend matinees apparently didn’t offset all the slow school nights of a show that runs past 10 p.m.

But the finances have nothing to do with the rich spectacle you see in two full acts onstage. And the surprising success of the original movie’s 3-D rerelease proves the title isn’t old if youngsters haven’t seen it. With tickets two-for-one for locals until Dec. 18, with blackout dates Nov. 23-27, it would be a shame to let this one slip by.

Funny, too, that director Julie Taymor’s tenure with "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" ended during this stretch at Mandalay Bay. Taymor seemed the perfect choice for the superhero after she expanded "The Lion King" into gorgeously stylized theater without sacrificing all the cute Disney Americana.

You get from the opening — sculpted exoskeletons of elephants and other animals coming down the theater aisle to a very African, non-Elton John version of "Circle of Life" — that this "King" has layers of adult artistry rooted in the ritual history of theater. The grasslands come to life via people wearing hats of grass on their heads. Lionesses kill an antelope for the pride, but it’s a puppet symbolically pulled into sections.

Garth Fagan’s choreography has people prowling like animals, and Michael Curry’s masks and puppets — the secret weapon of the show — ease you into looking at the human face while being constantly reminded of the character by the mask hovering slightly above.

And as theater gets more automated to make cinematic effects more possible onstage, it’s a childlike joy for all ages to see ancient stage magic reinvented: people holding separate pieces on poles together to make a giant face, or a river represented by a twirling ribbon of fabric.

The adult aesthetic is layered upon a kid-friendly plot, one so simple it seems padded compared to the movie’s economical running time. Young Simba (Zaire Adams on this night, alternating the role with Tim Johnson Jr.) is heir apparent to the lands patrolled by his father, Mufasa (Derrick Williams), who teaches him life lessons in the sonorous tones of James Earl Jones.

But every kid in the audience knows that if there is one place you are told not to go — here a hyena-infested elephant’s graveyard — then that’s the place you want to go. This curiosity is well understood by Scar (Thom Sesma), the sniveling Hamlet’s uncle of the family, who sets into motion the fall of Mufasa and exile of Simba.

Anyone who has seen the flick knows Simba (Dashaun Young) will grow into the lion that childhood friend Nala (Samantha Ware) wants him to be. And that he triumphs with the help of comic sidekicks Timon (Aaron de Jesus) and Pumbaa (Adam Kozlowski), who are rendered more faithfully to the film animation than the rest of the cast.

The Broadway version’s weakness is the quilting bee of a score, in which the handful of Elton John movie hits have been augmented to give Big, Meaningful Songs ("Shadowland," "Endless Night") to each character.

They don’t always seem of one piece and slow down the action. But one of the stage songs is a stunner: "He Lives in You," as sung by South African native Phindile Mkhize. Watching the youngsters file out after this show, you can’t help but wonder how else they could be introduced to African ritual chanting and Japanese kabuki tradition in a show with fart jokes.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ or 702-383-0288.


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