The Lion King roars

Yes, it's every bit as spectacular as they say it is. So go already.

click to enlarge DIZZYING DISNEY: The Lion King, now playing at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, is a visual and aural delight - Courtesy Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center
Courtesy Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center
DIZZYING DISNEY: The Lion King, now playing at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, is a visual and aural delight

The Lion King is a celebration of sight and sound, a rich feast of colors and shapes and melodies and chants that's almost overwhelming in its abundance. Imagine a stage full of dancers and singers dressed as elephants and giraffes, zebras and antelopes, singing in English and Swahili, while long green branches descend from the heavens and birds revolve just over the audience's head. Imagine life-sized hyenas, operated by humans wearing puppets, taking orders from a scoundrelly lion or a meerkat and a life-sized warthog, also moved by skillful performers, teaching a lost lion cub how to eat insects and live by the creed of No Worries: "Hakuna Matata."

If you're reluctant to see the musical because it's based on a Disney cartoon, let me tell you: What the stage show offers in three brilliant dimensions is immeasurably more than any animation ever gave in two. The stage musical The Lion King is about the potential of live theater to amaze and delight, and if you're interested at all in the far limits of human invention, you've got to hurry and see it.

And by all means, bring the children: The only danger you run is that you'll spoil them for life, and in their older years, viewing Shakespeare, they'll still be secretly waiting for the wildebeest stampede. It's a risk worth taking. The Lion King will hook kids on theater forever. I know I've never seen a pageant more spectacular.

There's a story, of course, and it's pretty much the same as in the animated feature, with just a few minor adjustments. Simba is a lion cub, son of the great King Mufasa, who rules over all the animals of the African Pride Lands. But old King Hamlet had his Claudius and Mufasa has his Scar: a bad-mannered brother who covets the crown for himself. Murder and trickery ensue, and Simba leaves the Pride Lands, seemingly forever. But you can't keep a good lion down.

It's a meaningful enough tale, with its moral/ecological lesson about taking responsibility for one's environment and its reminder to move into an adult role when the time comes. But whereas this story was the centerpiece of the movie, in the stage show it's just the pretext for every visual and aural delight that the minds of Julie Taymor, Michael Curry, Elton John, Tim Rice and a phone book full of others can devise.

To begin with Taymor and Curry's puppets: They're stunningly beautiful, some of them wonderfully precise, others abstract enough to be art. Some are operated by hand, some literally inhabited by their operators, who themselves wear splendidly colorful, original costumes. Among the animals we witness: elephants, giraffes, wildebeests, rhinos, antelopes, hyenas, zebras, gazelles, lions (of course), buzzards and Zazu the hornbill, a kind of courtier to King Mufasa who, as played and operated by Tony Freeman, is a source of constant comedy.

Speaking of comedy, Mark Shunock and Ben Lipitz as Timon and Pumbaa are hilarious as they try to live the hedonist's life, snacking on insects and ignoring duty. Strangely enough, Timothy Carter's Scar is also amusing — sarcastic, narcissistic and bad, bad, bad. But if Scar is the musical's villain and Mufasa its champion, Phindile Mkize as Rafiki the mandrill is its conscience. It's Rafiki who opens the play with her thrilling African chant, and it's she who eventually convinces Simba to live up to his father's legacy.

Word is that Taymor insisted Rafiki be a female because she thought the show lacked heroines. I can tell you the choice works: The audience roared for Rafiki on the evening I attended, and I can't imagine that any mere man could have done better.

Also terrific are Marquis Kofi-Rodriguez as Young Simba and Sadé LouAnn Murray as Young Nala: I actually prefer them to their older selves, played by André Jackson and Tampa native Dan'yelle Williamson. Dionne Randolph as Mufasa is every bit the charismatic head of state. It would be hard to live up to this image of a king.

And it will be hard for any other musical to provide us so many beautiful sights in only two acts. Among my favorites: a drawing of an enormously wide tree so ancient-looking and dignified that it might have come from the Garden of Eden; whirling birds operated by actors carrying long, flexible poles; a river made out of a long blue fabric; an enormous head of Mufasa coming together like a ghostly mosaic and shimmering as he speaks; a beautiful grassland carried on the heads of actors; and many, many more.

The best of the 13 songs is, not surprisingly, "Circle of Life," but all the African singing is nothing short of thrilling. Garth Fagan's choreography is superbly artful, and the show's direction, by Taymor again, is impeccable, from the most crowded menageries to the simplest encounters of Simba and Nala. There are even a few one-liners — about "a shower curtain from Target" and about picky, pesky carnivores.

I'll admit it: I expected less from Disney. But they overcame all expectation, hired Taymor, John and company, and have come up with a marvel. If you haven't lost the capacity for wonder — or if you're hoping to regain it — find a ticket if you can. This musical is so special that it's possible that you'll never see anything like it again in your lifetime.

I know that sounds excessive.

And I mean every word.

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