Review: 'Lion King' roars anew

Brent Harris is Scar and Jerome Stephens Jr. plays Young Simba in the national touring production of ‘The Lion King.’

BOSTON - Taking an animated movie and turning it into a theatrical stage production has been done before, and will likely be done again. However, it is doubtful if any other movie-to-musical production will have the kind of impact that "The Lion King" has had since its Broadway debut more than a decade ago.

I reviewed "The Lion King" when it opened in New York City in 1997 and remember leaving the New Amsterdam Theater on a high that was spine-tingling. I was blown away by the dazzling amalgam of masterful puppetry, brilliant staging, tremendous acting, divine dancing and sensational singing.

Even though I've seen it several times since, I was nonetheless giddy with excitement as my son and I walked through the ornate lobby of the Boston Opera House Thursday night to see the award-winning show. And even though I'm a bit of a Broadway snob, I was not disappointed by this top-notch production.

The show opened with a bang. As Rafiki, the wise baboon shaman sang about the balance of nature and introduced the audience to the African savannah. The part is played to perfection by Phindile Mkhize, a native of Durban, South Africa, who oozes with talent and a great sense of comedic timing.

His solo segued into Elton John and Tim Rice's beautiful ballad "Circle of Life," as dozens of animal puppets paraded majestically down the aisles and sauntered on stage. The visible wonderment of the audience was undeniable.

While it was clear that there were people under the costumes and behind the masks, the line became blurred very quickly as the graceful antelopes, imposing cheetahs, statuesque giraffes and other animals came to life. (This anthropomorphic phenomenon is due to the genius that is Julie Taymor, the show's director and, along with Michael Curry, the puppet/mask and costume designer.)

The story follows the life of Simba, the young, precocious cub and heir to the throne who loses his sense of direction after his father, Mufasa, is killed by Scar, his father's jealous and evil brother. Blaming himself for his father's death, Simba runs away from home and finds refuge in the jungle, where he makes friends with the wisecracking meerkat, Timon, and the big-hearted warthog, Pumbaa. Tyler Murree and Ben Lipitz, who play Timon and Pumbaa, respectively, were great.

While in the jungle, Simba grows into a young lion. Unbeknownst to him, his uncle's cruel and careless rule has ruined the Pridelands in his absence. After a chance encounter with his old friend, Nala, a beautiful young lioness who has left the devastated Pridelands, Simba learns of his uncle's misconduct and decides to return and reclaim the throne.

Returning to Pride Rock with Nala and his jungle friends, Simba confronts Scar and makes him confess that it was he who caused Mufasa's death. The ending is powerful and brings the story back to the beginning, completing the circle of life.

The cast in this show - one of seven productions playing worldwide - is impressive. The kids who play the young Simba and Nala, Elijah Johnson and Jamariana Tribble, were energetic and adorable, and their older counterparts, Andre Jackson and Marja Harmon, had incredible voices and played their respective roles convincingly. Jackson's rendition of "Endless Night," the beautiful song where Simba laments the loss of his father, is emotionally charged and powerful. While I don't think anyone will ever sing that song the way the late Jason Reize did (he was the original Simba on Broadway and it is his voice on the original Broadway cast album), Jackson came pretty close in both vocal depth and delivery.

Tony Freeman, who played the prim and proper hornbilled bird Zazu, was entertaining (he's played the role on Broadway and on tour for a decade and has it down pat), and Brent Harris as the deviously cunning and sardonic Scar was superb.

This is a show that adults and children will thoroughly enjoy. There's a reason is has won more than 70 major awards worldwide, including the 1998 Tony Award for Best Musical and the 1999 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. The music and lyrics of John and Rice are outstanding, and the African-influenced songs added to the original soundtrack score take this musical to new heights. It may have been around for a while, but "The Lion King" will never get old.

"The Lion King" plays through March 21 at The Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St. Tickets are $22.50-$91 and are available at Ticketmaster outlets, by calling 800-982-2787, or at the Boston Opera House box office.

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