LIVE: “The Lion King” @ Proctors, 2/24/11

The Lion King @ Proctors Theatre

“The Lion King” cuts loose with a mighty, magical roar at Proctors in Schenectady.

With all of the attendant media hype regarding the long-awaited month-long stand at the Electric City performing arts center, some might be a bit wary as to whether the production can possibly live up to the hoopla.

But, the resounding answer is, “Yes, it can.” And it does.

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The opening of “The Lion King” is as captivating a theatrical experience as you’re likely to find anywhere around Nippertown this year. It’s dazzling. It’s breath-taking. It’s spectacle of the first order.

A giraffe ambles across the stage. Gazelles cavort. Flocks of exotic birds soar through the air.

The orchestra revs up to full power, launching into the musical’s signature anthem, “The Circle of Life.” Percussionists situated on high in the box seats on either side of the theater join in, adding to the powerful African beat.

Then a rhinoceros trundles down the aisle from the back of the theater. And more flocks of birds. They’re joined a marvelous menagerie – including an elephant.

It’s pitch perfect pageantry. And you’re not just watching it; you’re literally engulfed in it. it surrounds you and sweeps you up in the moment, in the magic.

And that’s just the first ten minutes or so. Yes, “the Lion King” is a wonder to behold, thanks to the visionary artistry of director Julie Taymor, who also designed the costumes, the masks and the puppets, and even pitched in with some additional lyrics.

Taymor’s efforts are awe-inspiring, and she transforms the animated film into something rich and rewarding for adults, as well. “The Lion King” is no mere Disney cartoon come to life. It’s serious theater. Edgy theater. Even avant garde theater.

The puppets – and there are more than 200 of them in the production, including rod puppets, shadow puppets and life-sized puppets, too – are every bit as enthralling as the human actors on the stage. what’s really stunning is the masterful manner in which the manipulator and the puppet become one. Watch, for example, Sharon Williams and her cheetah puppet. Or the lionesses as they cry ribbons of tears, literally.

The actors nearly all make wonderful use of masks, as well, but none better than J. Anthony Crane who portrays Scar, the evil protagonist, with a ragged elegance. When he leans in to address another character on stage, his mask swoops down from above his head in an amazingly graceful arc that not only heightens the element of fear, but is also simply beautiful to see. Poetic, in fact.

Taymor and her cast don’t manage to maintain the level of wonderment throughout the show. It’s as if the production showed its whole hand at the start, leaving little in reserve to astonish as the evening unfolds. The second act, in particular, leans too heavily on the comic side of the Disney cartoon, as Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz) mug, crack wise and resort to a string of fart jokes. But, of course, “The Lion King” is a show for the whole family, and their scenes are clearly aimed at the children in the crowd.

Elton John and Tim Rice’s music meanders off-course in the second act, as well. There’s less African-related roots music and more American Idol-style pop pap. While the music is less than memorable, there are no absolute clunkers – except for a brief snippet of “It’s a Small World,” a self-denigrating bit of Disney-ism.

You may not be humming anything but “Circle of Life,” as you leave the theater, but chances are that the awe-inspiring images created on stage will stay with you for a long, long time.

Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

“The Lion King” kicks off its second week at Proctors at 8pm tonight and will continue its run in Schenectady through Sunday, March 20.

Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Matthew G. Moross’ review at The Daily Gazette: “Julie Taymor – director, costume designer and theatrical visionary – has swathed this ‘Hamlet meets Jungle Book’ tale with all the colors and culture of the real Africa, not the animated one. Using the most primal and ancient elements of theater – shadow, masks and controlled movement – the evening soars with visual and visceral power. With dancing gazelles, leering hyenas and majestic giraffes, Taymor’s vision and reinvention of this tale completely banished visual clichĂ©.”

The Lion King

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