On Theater: 'Lion King' reigns again

Daily Pilot

Watching "The Lion King," even on a second viewing, the operative response upon experiencing the opening number featuring a plethora of wild animals — including an elephant and two giraffes of approximate actual size — boils down to a single word: wow.

And these are just the background characters in this touring revival at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, one of seven running worldwide. There are zebras, hyenas, birds and, of course, lions. It's a jungle in there.

Inspired by the 1994 animated movie from the Disney company, which produces the Elton John-Tim Rice musical, "The Lion King" on stage is the imaginative product of director and costume designer Julie Taymor, who stages this version with the intricate choreography of Garth Fagan.

The central story of a lion cub born to be king, but who flees when his evil uncle has his father trampled to death, is beautifully played out by a splendid cast, which features Dionne Randolph as the ill-fated king Mufasa and Andre Jackson as his vengeful son, Simba.

Both bring a sense of predominant power to their roles, though the latter requires more time and introspection to attain.

The "bad guy" in the equation is Mufasa's envious brother Scar, malevolently rendered in the first act, then more tentatively at the climax by Brent Harris, who combines the treachery of old-time movie villains George Sanders and Vincent Price with the strongest singing voice of the cast.

Stealing the show, of course, are the wisecracking meerkat Timon (Tyler Murree) and the flatulent warthog Pumbaa (Ben LIpitz), who take the young Simba (alternately Elijah Johnson and Jerome Stephens Jr.) under their wings after he flees the Pridelands and Scar's wrath.

These roles are written specifically with young audiences in mind as Timon rattles off a score of one-liners (since this is a Disney production, there's even a crack about the "Small World" theme music) and Pumbaa endures unflattering remarks about his essence. These characters are needed to offset the inherent scariness of Scar and his hyena henchmen.

As the show's narrator/conjurer, Phindile Mkhize is a vibrant presence throughout. Marja Harmon is radiant as Simba's sweetheart Nala, while Jamariana Tribble and Madai Monica Williams divide the role of Nala's younger self.

Tony Freeman operates and virtually "becomes" the cocky avian creature Zazu.

Richard Hudson's awe-inspiring settings set the tone masterfully, abetted by Donald Holder's lighting effects.

Director Taymor and Michael Curry have created some wonderfully realistic masks and puppets (a prowling jungle cat is especially effective).

Much of the music is in an African dialect that won't be comprehended but will indeed be absorbed in the tone of the production.

More accessible are the familiar strains of "Circle of Life," "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."

This North American touring production already has been seen by over 12 million people, many of them children who ultimately will return with their own kids, keeping the "Circle of Life" intact.

It's a dynamic blend of music, puppetry, color, comedy and drama.

If You Go What: "The Lion King"Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa MesaWhen: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays through June 13Cost: Start at $23.25Call: (714) 556-2787

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