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THE MAJESTY REMAINS

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

In the city where looks count in the worst way, it is now official. We have established who’s the fairest show-biz couple of them all: director Julie Taymor’s staging of “The Lion King,” and the newly fabulous Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, fresh off a $10-million make-over.

Taymor’s wondrously attractive production--not so much a response to the 1994 animated blockbuster as a clear improvement on it--will likely call the Pantages home well into either a Gore or Bush administration.

It’s not as if the West Coast premiere of Broadway’s million-a-week grosser came with anything resembling suspense. The founders of this feast, the Walt Disney Co., weren’t about to slap together a second-tier version of Taymor’s often achingly lovely creation. Here, as on Broadway and in its 1997 Minneapolis tryout, the show is worth seeing for its first 10 minutes alone, never mind the felicitous stuff to come.

In “Circle of Life,” Taymor and company introduce us not simply to a bunch of animals--lions, a baboon, gazelles, an elephant, some giraffes--but to an entire theatrical worldview, combining rod puppetry, stilt-walking, masks and the humans behind it all. A host of Asian and African design influences has been filtered through an inspired director’s vision.

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To paraphrase the one about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Taymor gave Disney class. And Disney gave her bucks.

The show’s riches are all the more remarkable given the unevenness of the material. In a sense, Taymor’s a brilliant dress designer stuck here with a fair amount of polyester.

In case your TV (and your life) comes with a D (Disney) chip, “The Lion King” is about Simba (Adrian Diamond alternating with KaRonn A. Henderson, and Clifton Oliver as the older Simba). He is son of Pridelands King Mufasa (Rufus Bonds Jr.) and Queen Sarabi (Marvette Williams). Evil Uncle Scar (John Vickery) lusts for the throne. He engineers the death of brother Mufasa and implicates Simba as the cause. Of all the guilt trips in Disney history, this is one of the worst. Simba flees his homeland and accedes the throne to Scar and his hyena cronies, who promptly run the place into the ground. Clearly they have not read “Earth in the Balance.”

Simba, adrift, becomes pals with meerkat Timon (Danny Rutigliano) and wart hog Pumbaa (Bob Bouchard). Before long, though, he develops a sense of destiny, of responsibility, and returns home under the spiritual guidance of the baboon shaman Rafiki (Fuschia), to the loving arms of lioness Nala (Moe Daniels). Scar is vanquished, and the food chain is back in action.

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The film covered this ground in 88 minutes, albeit with only five Elton John-Tim Rice songs: “Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” “Be Prepared,” “Hakuna Matata” and the extremely drippy “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the toast of so many late ‘90s high school proms. Many consider the “Lion King” movie to be a modern classic, though to some of us its mood swings between pulp tragedy and wisecracks seemed a little sociopathic.

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The greatest achievement of Taymor’s production is simple, really. It is beautiful yet mellow. It doesn’t jerk you around the way the movie did. The new John-Rice material is just as synthetic as the team’s original five tunes, but the stage version features plenty of better additions credited to five other writers, riffing on songs from the spinoff album “Rhythm of the Pridelands.”

Taymor’s most crucial collaborators include mask and puppet co-designer Michael Curry and lighting designer Donald Holder. But the relatively unsung hero is Soweto-born Lebo M. Sung mostly in Zulu, Lebo M’s material and vocal arrangements for the stage edition deepen and authenticate the overall texture. The choral work couldn’t be better imagined or better performed. I’ve never seen a big Broadway hit so rich in transitional magic: A simple, wordless sequence such as the lionesses gathering for a hunt, for example, with Lebo M’s chants backing choreographer Garth Fagan’s movement, is magic of a rare and lovely order.

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Taymor and company got to do what they wanted to do. The deal, of course, was they also had to drag in most of the movie, dreck and all. Some performers in this L.A. company never quite shake their voice-over predecessors: John Vickery as Scar, for example, recalls Jeremy Irons in every other line reading and never quite enlivens his villain physically. Sporting costumes directly taken from the film’s animated creations, Rutigliano’s Timon and Bouchard’s Pumbaa stick closely to the invaluable Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella vocal creations.

Fuschia’s Rafiki has a tough act to follow; in New York, Tsidii Le Loka really gave Taymor’s universe a run for its money. Fuschia is nearly as strong (and what amazing makeup!), which is saying something.

You remember Rafiki, partly because she gets a lot of the show’s best music, and because there’s a lovely integrity in this simian shaman (shawoman, actually, in a smart gender switch from the movie). No less so, though, you come out of Taymor’s “Lion King” remembering animals who come and go fleetingly, like visions from a far-off savanna. The three-wheeled “gazelle wheel,” poetry in motion; the plaintive cheetah, a rod puppet perfectly in tune with its manipulator, licking its paw; such characters lend this ultra-hyped brand name its heart and personality. The show is a triumph of design unlike any other in Broadway history. Only Pride Rock itself, which corkscrews up from scenic designer Richard Hudson’s stage, disappoints. It looks like a piece of cheese, and it’s certainly the only cheesy visual aspect of the entire two-hour, 40-minute extravaganza.

So what if the score’s actually two scores, one good and one not? So what if a lot of the comic relief and melodrama feels padded, stretched and hogtied to its animated source? Taymor’s “Lion King” still manages to be more animated--more truly and diversely magical--than the film whence it came.

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* “The Lion King,” Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd. (at Vine), Hollywood. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Also: 2 p.m. Wednesdays the first Wednesday of each month. Currently selling through Oct. 1, 2001. $12-$77. (213) 365-5555 or (714) 703-2510. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Fuschia: Rafiki

Rufus Bonds Jr.: Mufasa

Marvette Williams: Sarabi

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William Akey: Zazu

John Vickery: Scar

Adrian Diamond/KaRonn A. Henderson

:alternating as Young Simba

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Jazmn/Lisa Tucker:

alternating as Young Nala

Carla Renata Williams: Shenzi

Jeffrey Polk: Banzai

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Price Waldman: Ed

Danny Rutigliano: Timon

Bob Bouchard: Pumbaa

Clifton Oliver: Simba

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Moe Daniels: Nala

Music by Elton John. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Additional music and lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi. Directed by Julie Taymor. Choreographed by Garth Fagan. Scenic design by Richard Hudson. Costumes by Julie Taymor. Mask and puppet design by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry. Lighting by Donald Holder. Sound by Steve C. Kennedy. Vocal arrangements and choral director Lebo M. Production stage manager Ray Gin.


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