When the stage version of Disney’s The Lion King first opened in 1997 (EW's original review), director Julie Taymor’s innovative production was universally lauded for its opening sequence. In an ingenious swipe from the movie, the play re-created the stately trek to Pride Rock by dozens of African creatures brought to life via eye-poppingly intricate costumes and puppetry. And then, of course, there was composer Elton John’s always-stirring, crowd-pleasing anthem ”Circle of Life.” Even 13 years later, the first 10 minutes of this well-known show are still loaded with ”Life”: No matter how many times you’ve seen seen some version of this story, you can’t help but smile at the sheer intensity of the animals, everything from wire-spun whirly jungle birds overhead to human-hunched giraffes that make your jaw drop. Singing along to the familiar tune is all but expected, effectively transporting you to happier times.
The rest of the production remains sturdy, but, mostly because of the stellar music and the costumes. Amid such visceral lavishness, it becomes rather difficult for individual performers to stand out. Still, Gareth Saxe (Scar) and Tshidi Manye (Rafiki) manage to take their characters to a level that transcends their dazzling garb. Saxe’s take on ”Be Prepared” is show-stopping, booming, and scary in the best way, while Manye’s dedication to the whimsy and wisdom of Rafiki is splendid. The actress gets some of the biggest laughs of the show, even more than those for ”Hakuna Matata”-schilling faves Pumbaa (Ben Jeffrey) and Timon (Fred Berman). (It’s worth noting that children in the audience still tend to find these two oddly cartoonish characters the most hilarious.) Unfortunately, the young Simba character — alternately played by Joshua J. Jackson and Alphonso Romero Jones II at present — falls flat against the maturity of the rest of the production.
The Lion King’s success as a show has always centered less on specific performance than the larger spectacle, the experience of transporting audiences to the Serengeti. And it certainly still succeeds in that aim. From the starry interlude where Mufasa comes back to life in the night sky to the simple brilliance of how Cameron Pow believably pulls off playing the delightfully worried bird Zazu, the important aspects of this Disney exhibition are majestic, making it still a King in its own right on Broadway. B+
(Tickets: ticketmaster.com or 877.250.2929)