The sheer, gorgeous spectacle of giraffes slowly making their way across a grassland, a leopard slinking along the same path, birds diving in circular patterns, hypnotizing the onlooker in the processthese are among the opening images of the eagerly-anticipated musical, The Lion King, that is now officially open and eager for business at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre.
Julie Taymor, the director-costume designer-mask/puppet designer-additional music/lyricist, has been the subject of extensive interviews, both here and internationally. Her designs speak to a boundless imagination and suggest a tenacity that knows no self-censorship mechanism. And while the scale of this entire production is itself near-boundless, there are necessarily many, many people who have helped to translate and engineer Taymor's visions into hard copy. (The headdress for Scar comes immediately to mind, for instance. The list would require several return visits to complete.)
In fact, there are four visual moments that stay with methe opening, wherein a carnival of animals makes its way through the auditorium to the stage, where it enwraps the audience in its magic spell; the opening of the second act, with its swooping and chattering birds; the appearance of Mufasa late in the second act; and most spectacular of all, the stampede of the wildebeests that provides the evening's single example of visual spectacle as a part of the dramatic whole. There is more to choose from, of course, and I would bet that, if polled, the audience would reflect a fairly wide-ranging set of impressions. But the overriding consensus would be that Taymor, Disney and the vast staff that has realized all the plans, drafts and renderings have earned the plaudits, awards and standing ovations that greet this newest of megamusicals each and every evening.
Now, adding a few other thoughts, and risking curmudgeon status as I do so, let me ask if the brilliance of visual spectacle can counterbalance low-grade level storytellingwhat does happen to Mrs. Mufasa after her mate's death and why doesn't anyone appear to notice or care? What am I to make of a combination of dialogue and musical score, both in composition and lyrics, that begs the question, 'Why bother?' Does it matter that, with three or four exceptions, the acting is stand-and-deliver dull and the singing almost wholly without character? And should we carp at the shamelessness with which standard issue pop tunes have been grafted onto more authentic African-sounding rhythms and melodies, one managing to cancel out the other? These are not elements that I can dismiss from my own list of what I look for and expect to find in such a pricey and hyped package. However, there are colleagues of mine, all of whom derive their livings from this business very appropriately termed 'show', who accept my caveats but are quick to add that with The Lion King one should just sit back and gawk and applaud and, in some cases, stand with the others at the final curtain.
It's all a bit mystifying.
The opening sequence is rich with splendour and novelty and wonder. Characters emerge from this mosaic to become principals in the story that is to follow, and one setting is replaced by another as the stage machinery slides, flies, elevates and propels people and set pieces with precision and, occasionally, great velocity. At the same time, the writing and direction employ among the oldest and most traditional of musical theatre devices: the scene played 'in one'. A full-stage scene is over and a drop comes in to allow the next setting to be arranged, all the while having acting, singing and dancing carry on to maintain the audience's focus and to avoid lapses of pace or energy. The tradition began long ago and it's heartening to see it so much in use in a production that has invested such time, talent and, yes, money, to dress a stage. The lighting design, by Donald Holder, is remarkable in its infinite range of mood, tone, texture and colour and often surpasses the clumsiness of the stage settings, allowing us to be drawn past too many staircases and too little floor space for the live action.
Garth Fagan, the noted contemporary choreographer, has devised many dance sequences and they add atmosphere and a depth that standard issue show dancing could not duplicate. But like the design elements, there is just too much of everything and the value of having this less-than-traditional approach to Broadway dance is diminished. The nadir of the choreography is the overproduced number, Can You Feel the Love Tonight?, but hit tunes must be acknowledged, I guess, and given their place of honour. And there is a second act number that abruptly switches gears and appears nothing less than homage to the aerobic style of choreography so favoured in Joseph , costumed with a set of garish Day-Glo costumes to complete the picture.
There is a corporate climate about the proceedings: dialogue that gets jokeyin Toronto, we are offered a local reference by way of the presenters' bargain basement storeand dialogue that coyly refers to a tune from that other Disney musical that transforms people into dinnerware. Laughter greets this and all of the bad, and badly selected, puns that litter the script.
So what's a guy like me to do while waiting for the next drop-dead scenic element?
I watched the looks of pleasure and delight on many youngsters' faces at the same time that I couldn't ignore a number of dozing kiddies. (At close to three hours, I would estimate that a full half-hour could be cut without most people noticing.) I eavesdropped on intermission chatter that reflected the power of live performance for an adult audience member. And I was especially pleased to know that my daughter, a veteran of the animated film thanks to many babysitting engagements, was really happy to have seen this staged version. And so was I.
Only the day before, I saw Shockheaded Peter in its final performance at Toronto's World Stage Festival, and it also made use of puppets. However, while the megamusical overwhelms us with the scale and audacity of its goals, the more modest British import manages to get beneath surfaces by creating puppets that match human behaviour and physical action. In the same festival, Ronnie Burkett opened his new play, Happy.
Suddenly, there is so much puppet life onstage in Toronto, all of it rich, varied and frequently as fascinating as the theatre performed by humans. In the case of The Lion King, the long-run member of this trio, it is a great shame that ticket prices will prevent so many people from experiencing the invention that makes Julie Taymor's achievement so worthwhile. Perhaps when the initial excitement wears down and the daily performances become matter-of-fact, the Mirvish and Disney offices can consider a backstage tour of masks and puppets or a mini-museum of the best of this effort, the real art of the commerce.
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