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Sue Kruse
The Lion King

A few weeks ago, fellow MousePlaneteer, Jim Hill suggested we here at MousePlanet work on a theme week. His idea was that, since March "comes in like a lion", we should write with the subject of lions in mind. I was given the task of reviewing the stage version of The Lion King currently playing in the Los Angeles area at the Pantages Theater.

My first reaction was, "The theme week thing is a nice idea, but egads! Review The Lion King??" You see, Dear Readers, I wasn't too keen on the play when I saw in January. If I began my column with, "I don't like The Lion King," I could just imagine scads of email flooding my box, with notes that started out something like, "Sue, you ignorant bitc.... What do you mean you don't like The Lion King?" I'm not quite prepared to spend my time reading the myriad reasons why The Lion King is a much-loved play and my view is wrong. My view is always right, for me, anyway.

Besides, MousePlanet has already run a very nice review of the Los Angeles version of The Lion King comparing it to the New York version. So, what to do? I countered Jim's idea with the suggestion that I write a column centered on a discussion about the influences on the design of the play, why does it look the way it does? That seemed like a good thing to write about.

Zebra Model
A Zebra - from a public promotional tour of Lion King models.

And so, Dear Readers, I set out to research the piece. I thought about what makes the play enthralling to so many, where is a good place to sit in the theater, why do I specifically think The Lion King is pretty much eye candy and then, I read everything I could about the director, Julie Taymor. I found out some pretty interesting stuff that, I have to admit, made me appreciate the play a little more, not enough to want to see it more than once, but it certainly added nuances to what I had seen.

I then set out to write the piece and have it to MousePlanet central at the appointed time. What I wrote was terrible, didactic garbage. As one should, with all garbage, I trashed the first draft and began again. Yet, more garbage. Into the trash bin, yet again, went the second draft. It started to feel like I was writing a term paper that had to be in on time and naturally, true to my student days, I resisted. I found every excuse I could, not to write about The Lion King.

I have to watch this rerun of Zorro that I've seen a thousand times...you know, I've forgotten how entertaining it is. Norm is working on a Craftsman-style fireplace on This Old House today. I may need to know how to do that some day. One never knows when one will build a Craftsman-style fireplace, does one? Oh, and I have to wash the dishes (those of you who know me personally, know how absolutely ludicrous that excuse is), and so on.

My friend Carroll then called, tempting me with, "Let's go play at DCA."

I resisted the siren of pleasure, "I can't come out and play today. I have to work."

Ugh!! I rolled my eyes in utter futility.

I started thinking...why am I having trouble with writing this? When I emerged from the theater after the play, I certainly was not at a loss for words, so why now? I soon realized the old adage about writing is very true. You have to write about what you know. What I had been writing truly had turned into just a term paper, with facts about Julie Taymor and theater in general. It had no heart, no life. In denying my lack of enthusiasm for The Lion King, I wasn't writing from my experience as I usually do. Under the circumstances, I could not turn the piece over to MousePlanet for you, Dear Readers, to read. I owe you more than that whether you agree with what I say or not.

So, Dear Readers, let me begin anew. I will not write a review, it doesn't really matter whether the play is good, average, or even bad theater. It is what you, the viewer, think it is. What I will tell you is, what I saw, why I thought what I did, and what I know about certain design elements of the play. You will learn about Bunraku, Wayang Kulit, and a thing I found interesting in doing my research that is called an ideograph. You will learn about the use of classic theater techniques (that may provide some spoilers if you have not seen the play...so be advised), and you will learn where I think the best place to sit in the theater is. Hopefully, if you go see the play, you will take some of what I say and enjoy your evening at the theater to its fullest. Because, when it comes right down to the lowest common denominator, you don't have to love The Lion King to enjoy your night at the theater. Even I will agree it is most certainly entertaining. I guess that's all most folks should expect when they buy their tickets.

Pantages in LA
The Pantages Theater in Hollywood

My first impression upon entering the Pantages Theater was one of exultation. How thrilled was I that The Lion King had made the Pantages its home? Plenty and I can tell you in one word why, renovation. Since the days my mother took me there when I was a wee-bitty thing, I have always loved the Pantages. It's one of those great old theaters from a time when old show houses were built with decorative excess. They were glorious and dazzling things to behold. I can't imagine a theater like that being duplicated today due to what must be prohibitive cost and I cringe every time I hear about another old theater being torn down to make way for "progress". It always dismays me that, here in America, our heritage is so disposable.

In later years, though still a pretty old gal, the Pantages had grown somewhat shabby. I applaud the Disney Folks for the "gift" they have given to the Los Angeles area in restoring the Pantages. It is now a grand and glorious lady once again and on the evening I was there, it was pleasurable just to be in the theater.

My seat in the theater was very near the stage, second row center, a good thing, if you're the sort who likes to be able to see the actors literally spit out their lines. In the case of The Lion King, second row center, is not a good thing. Give up seeing the actor's facial expressions and projectile spitting, should a sojourn to the theater be in your future, Dear Readers. Do listen to Sue when she tells you that sitting in the back of the orchestra section is the closest you should be. Sitting in the mezzanine would be even better.

Rhino Model
A Rhino - from a public promotional tour of Lion King models.

The reason I will shout this loudly to anyone who will listen, is thus...The Lion King is all about spectacle and pageantry. If you sit right up on the stage, you miss vital tidbits of that spectacle and pageantry. Since this is all-important to the play, it's tragic that seating choice would make one miss quiet bits of the spectacle. In her directorial wisdom, Ms. Taymor has employed age-old theater techniques that are so simple they play as clever and innovative.

For example, when the Pridelands dry up in the story, it could be a huge problem design-wise. How does the designer represent that, stylistically? You can't bring in a bunch of water and then evaporate it all, that's impossible. Julie Taymor employed a piece of blue cloth to represent the water. When it comes time to dry up, the cloth is pulled down a small hole in the stage. Simple, and it works brilliantly. To see this classic bit of staging, you must be sitting back from the stage or you completely miss it.

One of the biggest bits of spectacle in the play, the parade of the animals at the beginning of the first act, has been wowing audiences around the world and with good reason. This too, would benefit from afar. I sat so close that I couldn't take in the grand scope of things and as such, my attention began to wander. The costumes are clever and really quite wonderful. I focused on that. I started to try and figure out how the costumes were put together. After all, I was so close I could practically see the stitching.

Lioness Model
A Lioness - from a public promotional tour of Lion King models.

The first act starts out simply enough, pieces of brilliant red-orange silk rise up from the stage. At first they look like mere strips of flimsy fabric, but soon they reveal themselves to be the blazing sun beating high over the heart of the Pridelands. A few animals awaken with the rising of the sun, a leopard slinks across the stage, giraffes saunter in. I would liken it all to a symphony that begins softly with Rafiki singing the first notes the Circle of Life. As the music swells to a crescendo, the scene builds layer upon layer by adding animal after animal until the theater is filled like the proverbial ark, bursting with the most fantastic creatures, all designed by Julie Taymor. There are gazelles leaping, leopards prowling, giraffes, hyenas, flying birds, wildebeests, lumbering rhinos, and of course, lions. The symphony hits its climax when pride rock spirals up out of the stage raising Mufasa and Sarabi to the heavens while the mystical baboon, Rafiki, holds up baby Simba for all the Pridelands to see.

I do have to admit it was an amazing sight and I can understand why audiences love it. It's spectacle in the purest form. For me though, spectacle does not a play make. I felt it was a bit like the emperor's new clothes. Strip away the spectacle and what is left? That was my first criticism of The Lion King as a play. I left thinking it was all about the stuff and that is not what I want from a play. I need emotional investment and I never made any. The "stuff" got in the way. Queen Gertrude's line to Polonius in Hamlet would express my thoughts succinctly, "More matter, less art."

Another point I didn't quite understand with The Lion King and one that had me questioning it as I left the theater, is why this play is thought of as innovative, fresh, and new. Don't get me wrong, Dear Readers, I think the staging is quite brilliant. I do not think it is innovative. So much of what is there is ancient theater techniques. I've been having an ongoing discussion with my friend Carroll who keeps telling me, "It's innovative because even though these techniques are not new to the world, they are new to American musical theater."

What I am talking about is Bunraku and Wayang Kulit, two forms of puppetry. Bunraku is the common name for a form of Japanese puppetry that is actually called ningyo-joruri, which means puppets and storytelling. The art dates from 1600's. Bunraku is a combination of three things, the puppet, the story, and the music that accompanies the play. It takes years to master the art. Classic Bunraku features puppets about half life-sized, that are capable of great facial expression. Their eyes and eyebrows move, their mouths open and shut, and their hands and arms move like that of a live person.

It takes three people to operate the Bunraku puppet and they must work in complete unison. The puppet's operators are on stage and completely visible to the audience at all times. If the operators are good at what they do, they disappear and all the audience sees is the character the puppet plays.

In addition to the puppet operators, there is also a narrator, who acts out the story, and a shamisen (a traditional stringed instrument) accompanist who adds to the play as a score adds to a film by providing sound effects and music.

In the case of the Lion King, both Zazu and Timon are essentially Bunraku puppets. I have to say, Dear Readers, that either I saw a performance where the actors were tired, or perhaps it was just a bad day, as most of the actors were walking through it. But, the actor who played Zazu, William Akey, was neither of those things. Dressed all in blue, as a sort of insane British Pearly with a bird on the end of his arm, I thought he was one of the best things in the production. Knowing very little about Bunraku, I am not qualified to make this judgment, but I will anyway. William Akey is a veritable Bunraku master. Most of the time, I quite forgot there was a man attached to that bird, he made Zazu come to life.

The Timon puppet used in the show is larger than life (I don't think real meerkats are five feet tall), but he is definitely a Bunraku puppet as well, with an articulated face and lifelike limb movement. I never achieved the thought that his operator, actor Danny Rutigliano, didn't exist (I tended to watch Danny and totally ignore the puppet), but that didn't diminish the role too much. For me, Timon was just a big green thing that had something that looks like Timon attached to his front (I think Danny's green get-up is supposed to blend him into the forest).

The second type of puppetry found in The Lion King comes from Indonesia. Wayang Kulit is a form of shadow puppetry that dates from the 10th century. It consists of flat leather puppets, decorated with elaborate perforations and bits of paint. The puppets are mounted on rods and have articulated limbs that are mounted on separate rods to facilitate movement. The performance is done behind a fabric screen that is backlit to project the shadow of the puppet. In this form of shadow puppetry, the operator, or dalang, not only makes the puppets move, but also narrates the story and provides sound effects. The performances can last all day and are traditionally commissioned to celebrate marriages, births, circumcisions, and other rites of passage.

Wayang Kulit appears in The Lion King many times, but none so effective as at the end of the Circle of Life number. You, as an audience member, have just been subjected to a grand spectacle and then all of the sudden that spectacle is reduced to a tiny spot of light. Within that spot of light is the silhouette of a mouse. The little shadow puppet mouse travels blithely across the stage until he runs into one of the most powerful figures in the story, Scar. Scar snags the mouse, eats it and the light is vanquished. In a very simple way, it foreshadows what Scar is will do later on in the story.

The little circle of light that follows the mouse puppet also has to do with another major theme that runs throughout all of Julie Taymor's work. It is something called an ideograph. My dictionary tells me that an ideograph is a symbol representing an idea rather than a word. In terms of the theater, an ideograph is the reduction of the idea to its essence. In looking into Julie Taymor's life for this article, I found that she often likes to ask of her actors to form an ideograph of their role. Sometimes, what they come up with sparks an idea in her that will lead to something in the design of the piece she is working on. Sometimes what they produce, amazes her. Either way, it is a creative to she finds useful.

In the case of The Lion King, the ideograph is an obvious one and it is repeated over and over again. We hear it with the biggest song, we see it with Pride Rock as it spirals up from the stage. It's reiterated in the shape of Mufasa's mask and in Simba's mask. We see it in the opening scene as the simple fabric of the sun rises over the Pridelands. It is in as ambitious a scene the wildebeest roller stampede, and as simple a scene as the tiny puppet mouse devoured by Scar. It is the circle. Yes, Dear Readers, it's the circle of life (I just had to say it).

I think what we have in Julie Taymor's version of The Lion King are moments of brilliance served up with a good dose of spectacle that in the end are really lightweight when it comes to the grand scheme of things. It doesn't delve into the story any further as it is essentially the cartoon lifted onto the stage with some cool design elements. It's fluff theater. It's good for an evening's amusement, but do not expect anything more than that from it. It would probably be a good way to introduce an older child to theater (say an eight-year-old), although I'd probably hold out for Peter Pan or Beauty and the Beast.

If you want to see a Julie Taymor piece that is stunning and amazing and does not laden itself down with artifice, may I recommend that you view her filmed version of Shakespeare's play, Titus. It's available for rental. I would offer the proviso that it is not for the faint of heart, it involves things that are very brutal and hard to watch. I don't think I ever need to see it again, if for no other reason than the imagery of the character Lavinia. However, I do think it is amazing and yes, brilliant.

If you hunger for more knowledge about Julie Taymor's work, do have a look at the book, Julie Taymor Playing With Fire by Eileen Blumenthal and Julie Taymor. It covers all of her work from the time she was a 16-year-old student at L'École de Mime Jacques LeCoq in Paris (where she got her love for the use of masks), to her stay in Indonesia (where she discovered puppetry), to her latest work, Titus. It's an interesting read and it shows that overnight success (which seems to be the case for Julie Taymor) takes at least 20 years.

So there...I went ahead and said it. I was true to my experience and you can ask no more of me. I didn't really like the play, The Lion King. And those questions I posed to myself in the beginning? If you didn't catch them the first time the answers appeared in this column, here they are again:

Why do I think people love this play? The spectacle.

Where do I think you should sit? The mezzanine or balcony. Buy the cheap seats (cheap is relative here, it's Disney).

Why do I think it's just eye-candy? It's all spectacle with no emotional investment.

There you have it, Dear Readers, when you write, try to be kind.

 Lion King Information

The OFFICIAL WEB SITE for the Los Angeles production allows you to purchase tickets on line.

The OFFICIAL WEB SITE for the New York production also offers that option.

Amazon offers both the Broadway cast album -

and the Original Film Soundtrack -

CLICK HERE TO BUY FILM SOUNDTRACK CD

for sale on-line, click either picture above to purchase

 

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