Dallas — The State Fair of Texas typically contains a wide variety of familiar and unusual animals, but the most unique ones come marching down the aisles of The Music Hall at Fair Park for Dallas Summer Musicals' season closer The Lion King. Adapted from the 1994 Disney movie, the Broadway musical has won more than 70 global theatrical awards including the 1998 Tony Award for Best Musical. The show’s director, Julie Taymor, not only holds the distinction of being the first woman to win a Tony for Best Direction of a Musical, but she’s also the costume designer and mask/puppet co-designer.
It may seem interesting that a costume designer doubles as the director, but it’s almost a necessity for a production like this. Taymor and crew utilize a variety of costume and puppetry styles, and the result is one of the finest displays of theater magic around. The spectacle alone is worth a coveted ticket (as DSM quickly sells out a show like this), but rather than spoil the visual surprises, let’s focus on the other elements.
Like many film-to-stage musical adaptations, the story remains mostly unchanged and just adds a few details and extra musical numbers. Mufasa (L. Steven Taylor) and Sarabi (Tryphena Wade), king and queen of the Pridelands, welcome the birth of their son, Simba (Jordan A. Hall), who grows to be a feisty and curious lion cub. When young Simba finds himself in trouble with some hyenas in a forbidden area, the conniving intentions of his uncle Scar (Patrick R. Brown) are revealed. A terrible tragedy drives Simba away from his home, and he forms an unlikely friendship with the meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and the warthog Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz). Some time later, an adult Simba (Dashaun Young) must decide between staying in his comfortable life and fulfilling his destiny as king.
For the most part, the stage production only improves on the music of the film (created by Elton John and Tim Rice) by adding in a multitude of African choruses and a few extra songs. These additions (by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer) work remarkably well, with a couple of exceptions. “Chow Down”, a devious dinnertime ditty sung by the hyenas, is horridly out of place as it unsuccessfully attempts to combine rock guitar with African drum. Their other song, “The Madness of King Scar,” doesn’t fare much better.
The choreography goes beyond just simple dance sequences. Modern dance choreographer Garth Fagan infuses his signature Afro-Caribbean style not only in the individual dancing parts, but in the animal characters as well. While timing gets off a tad in the ensemble parts, the choreography is a refreshing change from the typical musical maneuvers.
Performances from the main cast are a peculiar mix. When it comes to line delivery, the transition from screen to stage isn’t as smooth as one might think. Film relies so much on facial expressions to convey meaning that when those same words are spoken from the stage, they are uttered differently to compensate. In this case, much of the dialogue comes across as cheesy and overdone.
At times, this is due to the younger cast members. While Hall provides the energy needed for young Simba, most of his lines and singing parts are forced. Zyasia Jadea Page as young Nala does a little better, but her performance still feels artificial.
Brown as Scar does well in his part, but it appears incomplete. His British demeanor handles Scar’s sarcasm brilliantly, but he only channels the whiny, narcissist side of the character. Nowhere in the production does he ever seem menacing.
Brown Lindiwe Mkhize as Rafiki steals the show. From her opening vocals to her chants in the Xhosa language (including the clicks) to the humorous scene with Simba at the peak of Act II, her portrayal of the wise old sage baboon resonates long after the curtain falls.
Other notable performances come from Young (who audiences may remember from Sister Act earlier this summer) as he elegantly switches between the carefree yet conflicted prodigal and the rightful king. Taylor provides a splendid balance between benevolently powerful monarch and loving father. Both offer dynamic vocals, but they don’t upstage Nia Holloway as Nala and her impressive rendition of “Shadowlands.”
While parts of the performance have a campy feel that are hard to avoid in a stage adaptation from a popular movie, The Lion King should still be on everyone’s must-see list. It’s a wonderfully delightful show for all ages, but it’s only in town for two more weeks.