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'King' of the Hill

''The Lion King'' is the best that Broadway has at the moment

''Lion King'' is king of the hill

Like Christmas Day and sex with supermodels, Broadway seasons are often far more exciting during the anticipation stage. Over the past two months, four new eagerly anticipated musicals have opened, and the first three — The Scarlet Pimpernel, Triumph of Love, and Side Show — made this season look like no exception to the rule. But then, on Nov. 13, The Lion King bounded onto the stage, and Broadway roared.

Based on Disney's blockbuster 1994 animated feature, the musical version of The Lion King might have been mounted like the spectacular but ice-showish Beauty and the Beast, which is still charming children and making money a few blocks away. Fortunately, Disney didn't leave well enough alone. To bring The Lion King into three dimensions, Disney tapped Julie Taymor, an experimental director known for her cerebral productions meshing puppetry and poetry. The unlikely partnership has turned the most successful animated film in Disney's history into the most exciting Broadway experience since Rent routed the Great White Way into the '90s two seasons ago.

Elton John and Tim Rice have added three songs to their original score (more music, including some haunting African tribal numbers, is by Taymor, Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina, Lebo M, and Jay Rifkin), but it's Taymor's staging that makes The Lion King such a blessed event. Her enormous creations — including a life-size elephant and great, lanky giraffes — roam the theater in a full-throttle rendition of ''Circle of Life.'' Fusing actors, costumes, and puppets, Taymor and her collaborator, Michael Curry, leave the faces of her largely black cast visible under the regal lion masks, giving the proceedings an unexpected emotional wallop. There's an inspired performance by Tsidii Le Loka as the babbling, mystical, mischievous baboon, to whom Taymor has given a sex change (Robert Guillaume did the voice in the film). And Max Casella (whose Doogie Howser, M.D. costar Neil Patrick Harris, by the way, is starring in the Los Angeles production of Rent) sings, dances, and clowns impressively while operating a Timon-the-meerkat puppet almost as big as he is.

Yes, The Lion King's pacing drags a bit in the first act, and the show's venue, Disney's opulently refurbished New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street, has a few kinks (you'll miss a lot of the show if you're seated too far to the side). But Taymor's amazing vision overrides any quibbles. The Lion King can make you fall in love with theater no matter what theater it's in.

Since so many people are lining up for The Lion King, here's an assessment of the season's easier-to-get-into new musicals. There's only one good reason to see The Scarlet Pimpernel: Douglas Sills as Percy, the titular English aristocrat who leads a secret brigade against radical French revolutionaries. He prances and swaggers with sharp comic timing and a dancer's grace. He sings in a heroic baritone that could sail the English Channel. Too bad the show's sappy ballads by Nan Knighton and Frank Wildhorn sound like an unholy collaboration between Celine Dion and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Director Peter Hunt's lavish but static adaptation of the century-old novel by Baroness Orczy is even more lazy. If the fighting French are your thing, Les Miserables is still the place to be.

Likewise, Triumph of Love, directed by Michael Mayer, triumphs only when Betty Buckley — right now the finest voice on Broadway — gets to sing. Despite the commanding presence of costar F. Murray Abraham, this musical version of Marivaux's gender-bending 1732 comedy about the sexual awakening of a group of philosophers is pretty dumb.

If Marivaux sounds like an odd inspiration for a musical, you haven't seen Side Show, based on Daisy and Violet Hilton, the Siamese twins who in real life picked themselves up from the carnival circuit to become vaudeville stars. As the twins, Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley sing poignantly and beautifully, and director Robert Longbottom's well-meaning, straight-faced storytelling works on its own loopy terms. (By the end, you cringe when a movie director refers to them as freaks.) Still, this musical gave me church giggles a couple of times; for all its ambition and pretensions, it's inevitably a show starring two fine actresses with their butts stuck together. Perhaps they should have used puppets.

The Lion King: A+ The Scarlet Pimpernel: C Triumph Of Love: C Side Show: B-

Originally posted Dec 05, 1997 Published in issue #408 Dec 05, 1997 Order article reprints
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