Hakuna Matata! B'way's Lion King Opens Tonight

News   Hakuna Matata! B'way's Lion King Opens Tonight
 
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Tom Alan Robbins as Pumbaa, Jason Raize as Simba and Max Casella as Timon in Disney's The Lion King
Tom Alan Robbins as Pumbaa, Jason Raize as Simba and Max Casella as Timon in Disney's The Lion King Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus

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Disney's stage adaptation of The Lion King opens on Broadway Nov. 13 at the refurbished New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street.

The new stage musical adaptation of Disney's animated film, The Lion King, substantially augments the five-song film score by Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice with eight new numbers by Lebo M, Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin. John's pop-songwriting career includes such tunes as "Rocket Man," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" and "Honky Cat." Rice is best known for Chess and his musical collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Julie Taymor, whose skills at puppetry were on display last season in Juan Darien and Off-Broadway's The Green Bird, directs The Lion King. Taymor received a 1991 MacArthur Foundation Grant, (nicknamed the "Genius" grant) also won by Richard Foreman, Anna Deavere Smith and Bill Irwin. She was recently signed to direct a live-action film of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus for First Look Pictures, but those duties haven't conflicted with Lion King.

Tickets are available via Ticketmaster, (212) 307-4100. This tale of life in the jungle tried out at MN's Orpheum Theatre in August and began previews in October. The show features a libretto by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi. The latter co-wrote the screenplay; the former directed the animated film. Garth Fagan is the choreographer.

Musical numbers in the show include: "Circle Of Life," "The Morning Report" (John/Rice), "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," "Chow Down" * (John/Rice), "They Live in You" * (Mancina/Rifkin/Lebo M), "Be Prepared," "Hakuna Matata," "One by One" * (Lebo M), "The Madness of King Scar" * (John/Rice), "Shadowland" *(Zimmer/Lebo M/Mancina), "Endless Night" * (Zimmer/Rifkin/Lebo M; lyrics by Taymor), "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," "He Lives in You" * (Mancina/Rifkin/Lebo M), "Busa" * (Lebo M/Zimmer/Rifkin). (Songs with an asterisk were not in the Disney animated film.)

Designing The Lion King are Richard Hudson (set), Taymor and Michael Curry (puppets and masks), Donald Holder (lighting) and Tony Meola (sound).

The production has 13 principal characters, 13 singers, and 12 ensemble dancers. Here are the 13 principals:
Scar - John Vickery; Mufasa - Samuel E. Wright; Zazu - Geoff Hoyle; Rafiki - Tsidii Le Loka; Timon - Max Casella; Pumbaa - Tom Alan Robbins; Simba - Jason Raize; Nala - Heather Headley; Banzai - Stanley Wayne Mathis; Shenzi - Tracy Nicole Chapman; Ed - Kevin Cahoon; Young Simba - Scott Irby-Ranniar; Young Nala - Kajuana Shuford.

Raize appeared in national tours of The King and I and Miss Saigon. Vickery appeared in The Sisters Rosensweig. Wright was Tony nominated for his performance in The Tap Dance Kid. Casella, best known on TV as Doogie Howser's nerdy buddy, Vinnie, plays Timon, the comic meerkat originated in the film by Nathan Lane.

Geoff Hoyle plays (and manipulates) the bird, Zazu; and Tsidii Le Loka, a woman, playing the witch-doctor, Rafiki (a male character in the Disney film). Lebo M, a cabaret singer in Soweto, South Africa, now an expatriate, first worked with Hans Zimmer on the score to the Morgan Freeman film, Power Of One.

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The Lion King tells the story of a young lion prince, Simba, who must battle his evil uncle Scar for the kingship of an African animal kingdom called Pride Rock. Scar brings about the death of Simba's father, King Mufasa, and drives the prince into exile, where he grows up among devil-may-care companions Timon (a comic meerkat) and Pumbaa a (good humoredly gross warthog). But his childhood friend Nala seeks Simba out and persuades him to reclaim his birthright.

Theatre fans will recognize swaths of two Shakespeare plays in the story: Hamlet, with its story of a brooding prince and usurping uncle; and Henry IV, Part 1 with its story of a wayward prince who claims his birthright after a spell with raucous, low companions, including Falstaff.

Originally, Disney had no intention of turning its 1994 animated film into a stage musical; it was even a joke around the Disney offices, until Michael Eisner began asking about the concept. Tom Schumacher, of Disney Theatrical Productions, said it was "the worst idea he'd ever heard," but months later he was at work developing the project. For him, the idea was to find "the myth and core" of the story, rather than recreate the movie the way Beauty And The Beast does.

Schumacher's change-of-heart seems to be paying off. The Lion King was ecstatically received in Minneapolis, and the only major obstacle the show's faced in New York -- a dispute with Musician's Union Local 802 about the number of musicians in the pit -- was amicably resolved two days before previews were set to begin.

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According to director Julie Taymor (Juan Darien), Rafiki is one of the few characters who will not utilize a mask, though she'll have a lot of face paint and an elaborate gown. As for characters with masks, Taymor emphasized that unlike her Juan Darien, The Lion King emphasizes the humans onstage. "We have wonderful singers," said Taymor, "so it's important the masks don't cover their mouths. Plus, facial expressions are terribly important in the film and will remain so onstage. Therefore, the masks often rest on top of the performers' heads, or out in front of them. Several performers also have a small, lightweight, carbon graphite control in their palms, by which they can control the masks movement, either up or down or forward in front of the forehead."

Actors are also able to manipulate other elements of their animal costumes with their hands and feet, yet the audience will often see the manipulations. For example, Taymor demonstrated a model of a "gazelle wheelbarrow." One person manipulates a wheel, around which several gazelles gracefully roll forward. "We watch the animals leap up and down rapidly, while also watching the person turning the wheel moving slowly, serenely across the stage." Taymor termed this "a kind of corporate puppetry."

"Watching this kind of theatre becomes `a double event," said Taymor. "We go to be moved, to be entertained by the story, but also to enjoy how it's done."

In developing the piece, Taymor wanted to mix "high-tech and low-tech," but also mix "cinematic techniques into a theatrical framework." For example, twenty dancers rise up out of the stage with large platters of grass on their heads, becoming a field. "That's a long shot. When we cut to the real actors coming out, the effect is of a close-up." The stampede will be dne using visible conveyor belts, similar to piano rolls.

These rolls, as well as "a turntable that screws up out of the stage into a cantilevered staircase," are among the visual elements Taymor and Hudson have chosen to represent the story's thematic use of a circle. (Of course, the show opens with the "Circle Of Life" number.)

The film, The Lion King, used the voices of an array of Broadway talent, including Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg. The stage version utilizes an onstage chorus (as herds and flocks), as well as six percussionists up in the New Amsterdam's boxes.

The Lion King is the second show (and the second Tim Rice musical with the word "king" in the title) in the refurbished New Amsterdam Theatre, after the Alan Menken/Tim Rice oratorio, King David, which opened in May. Once home to the Ziegfeld Follies, the theatre has been restored by Disney and serves as flagship for its planned theatrical productions. The first Disney theatre project was Beauty and the Beast at Broadway's Palace Theatre.

Tickets for the Lion King range from $25-$75, though the Daily News reports that top tickets will be $80 during the holidays (Dec. 22-31). Ticketmaster's taped information on the show did not mention the extra $5, though the price hike is almost moot -- a service agent couldn't come up with a single pair of orchestra seats for the entire month of December. Tickets are on sale for The Lion King through end of June.

For an account of the grand reopening of the New Amsterdam Theatre, see "Disney & NY Leaders Rechristen New Amsterdam Theatre" in Theatre News.

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