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‘The Lion King’

And who is this amid the parade of gloriously abstract animal costumes? A guy in a … bowler hat? With pasty, streaky makeup? Who looks just a whole lot like the bowler-hat mime dudes in "Mystere," "O," "Love," "Believe" and "Le Reve"?

N-O-O-O-O-o-o-o-o-o-o-!

What? Oh. Settle down, Cirque-saturated Vegas reviewer. He didn’t sneak in, and he’s not going to dump popcorn on you. He’s a bird, see? Look at the puppet. Zazu (Patrick Kerr) speaks English, thank heavens, as the nervous majordomo found in many a Disney tale.

Accidental as it might be, the get-up does prove "The Lion King" isn’t such a strange fit on the Las Vegas Strip after all. Director Julie Taymor’s groundbreaking spectacle, which brought stylized, symbolic theater to the "Disney on Ice" crowd, isn’t far removed from Cirque du Soleil’s evocative, surreal pull on the mainstream.

Twelve years down the road, "The Lion King" still seems innovative and gorgeous. And the answer to the big question — how they would make the animated film work onstage? — is still more compelling than the songs, normally the bedrock by which a Broadway musical usually lives or dies.

The blend of puppetry, masks and ancient theater techniques conjures up a wildebeest stampede and a cut from "close-up" to "longshot" as Timon (Damian Baldet) is swept into a river and dangles from a tree branch over a waterfall and snapping crocodiles.

It can feel like an interruption when the riveting staging has to take a pause for the cause, for the required tunes of soul-searching or life lessons from each major character.

"The Lion King" is light-years more evolved and sophisticated (without forgetting the pratfalls and fart jokes) than Disney’s first theatrical venture, "Beauty and the Beast." But that one was more organic and integrated as a traditional musical.

Here, the handful of movie songs by Elton John and Tim Rice expand into a patchwork of collaboration that throws Rice’s jokey wordplay alongside the goose-bumpy chants of African composer Lebo M.

The Mandalay Bay production runs in two acts with intermission, meaning the bows for an 8 p.m. show aren’t finished until about 10:35 p.m. After years of bully pulpitting that Vegas audiences pay full prices and thus deserve the full show — not some 90-minute chop job — I fought back a heretical, traitorous notion: Here’s one that could be tightened by at least 10 minutes, no problem.

One original soundtrack tune ("The Morning Report") already was lost along the way, and no one would miss the hyenas singing "Chow Down," as young lion prince Simba (Elijah Johnson) ventures into trouble in an elephant graveyard.

The Shakespearian plot has villainous uncle Scar (Thom Sesma) — the fearsome Jeremy Irons movie character transformed into a cowardly Snagglepuss for the stage — manipulating the death of noble king Mufasa (suitably buff and noble Alton F. White) and tricking the cub into self-exile.

The second act speeds along more quickly as the arrival of a very striking lioness, Nala (Kissy Simmons, impressively feline with Garth Fagan’s choreography), snaps the adult Simba (Clifton Oliver) out of the worry-free "Hakuna Matata" jungle life with his comic sidekicks Timon and Pumbaa (Adam Kozlowski).

Aside from some inarticulate lyrics here and there, it’s a first-rate rendition from top to bottom. The open-ended casino run affords a few luxuries whittled away in years of touring, from the Pride Rock set corkscrewing out of the ground to stereo percussionists on each side of the stage.

Taymor is now busy at work on "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," and this will make you want to see it so badly that you can only hope it doesn’t take 12 years to get here. But for "The Lion King," at least you can say, "Better late than never."

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

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