Sunday, June 24, 2018
Stage

Review: 'Disney's The Lion King' a marvel of design and engineering

TAMPA — Somehow, I got this far in life without having seen any version of The Lion King, either the 1994 Disney movie or the enormously popular musical that followed.

Though I wrote about it as the season's jewel at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts with nearly a monthlong run, I was thinking about a pricey stone, a rock on someone's hand that meant little to me. The Lion King was a kids movie, and the musical, Tony or no, promised to be an extravaganza of costuming, puppetry and props — a 3-D movie on the stage.

The musical, directed by Julie Taymor and with music by Elton John, has run 18 years on Broadway and grossed more than $1 billion. The touring version sold out Sunday's matinee at the Straz. Parents brought kids. The show is extremely family-friendly, awash in color and replete with life-sized giraffes, birds, antelope, zebras and more.

Even an elephant on the scale of War Horse (well, an elephant) lumbers from the orchestra seats to the stage. Characters rush up the aisles, or in one instance stroll, stopping to clap and sing. It is as if the entire cast and crew are trying to grab you by the lapels and insist that you watch.

The result did not so much disprove my initial skepticism as to render it irrelevant, replacing a jaded sigh with something more forgiving. I came to that conclusion by the sheer force of imagination and technical proficiency in this show and the effect it all seemed to have on the audience.

This is, of course, a coming of age story for Simba the lion cub, a cute little kitten played by B.J. Covington on Sunday. His father, Mufasa, would have remained king of the Pride Lands of Africa, were it not for the ambitions of Mufasa's brother, Scar, to be king himself.

Scar is more Machiavellian than ferocious, more acid-tongued than alarming, but deadly just the same. It's odd to see a lion played by Gore Vidal, but Patrick R. Brown pulls off the role with malicious finesse, bumping off the noble Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey) in a buffalo stampede.

Scar rules over his demoralized kingdom backed by trio of hyenas, whose ghostly movements and cackling are actually quite creepy (split a best-supporting award between Keith Bennett, Tiffany Denise Hobbs and Robbie Swift). Simba, meanwhile, who has escaped the stampede, is rescued by an endearing warthog and his sidekick meerkat. He adopts their vegetarian diet and lifestyle, characterized in the song Hakuna Matata, a Swahili phrase which means, "There are no worries."

It's pretty clear where this is going. It's been clear all along. Good prevails, honor is restored, and karma comes to the wicked (and paybacks are hell). At times my attention wandered in the second act, but snapped back in line when I thought about hundreds of children in the audience who were not moving a muscle. ("So, these kids are taking in every moment and you can't?" said the voice in my head.)

Indeed, there is much to admire. Ben Lipitz as the warthog Pumbaa and Nick Cordileone as the meerkat Timon supply a steady stream of Saturday-morning-cartoonish banter and corny puns, as does Tony Freeman as Zazu, the king's bird-puppet adviser.

But the real accomplishment here is the sum of parts that make up The Lion King. It's the movement, the dance, lavish costumes and ingenious props. It's the lighting, the set that can turn a savannah into an elephant graveyard into a starry night sky. All of those things rest on the foundation of a solid story, however thinly told. Music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice underscore a theme Mufasa explains to his son: "We are all connected in the great Circle of Life."

I left the Straz no longer a skeptic, if not a true believer. Who is to say a playwright or a production must make their point by character development, depth and adult-sized drama if that is not what the audience wants? The crowd leapt to their feet as I went to my car to beat the crowd, happy that I had finally seen The Lion King.

Hakuna matata.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

Comments
On stage this week: Freefall Theatre’s ‘The Musical of Musicals,’ Jay Pharoah

On stage this week: Freefall Theatre’s ‘The Musical of Musicals,’ Jay Pharoah

SENDUP: MUSICAL OF MUSICALSFive composers, a talented cast, choreography by Cheryl Lee and music directed by Michael Raabe — that’s Freefall Theatre’s recipe for a laugh-filled, season-ending summer musical, appropriately titled The Musical of Musica...
Published: 06/20/18
Jobsite’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ should be more gripping than it is

Jobsite’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ should be more gripping than it is

TAMPA — The virtues of Dancing at Lughnasa, with which Jobsite Theater closes its season, are many. This drama by the celebrated Brian Friel opened in 1990 to much acclaim. It captures a family’s joys and sadnesses, and the quickness with which one s...
Published: 06/19/18
Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — In his vision for this weekend, Connor Coyle is standing in the ring at the Coliseum, and the referee is raising his gloved fist.He’s got a National Boxing Association middleweight championship belt around his waist, the first of sev...
Published: 06/15/18
Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — In his vision for this weekend, Connor Coyle is standing in the ring at the Coliseum, and the referee is raising his gloved fist.He’s got a National Boxing Association middleweight championship belt around his waist, the first of sev...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/16/18
Why this ballet dancer is skipping college in favor of her own St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory

Why this ballet dancer is skipping college in favor of her own St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory

GULFPORT — Brianna Melton is as serious a ballet student as they come.By her junior year at St. Petersburg High’s International Baccalaureate program, she had already spent four summers training with ballet companies across the country and had narrow...
Published: 06/14/18
What’s on stage: The Illusionists, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa,’ G. David Howard

What’s on stage: The Illusionists, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa,’ G. David Howard

OPENING: DANCING AT LUGHNASAIrish playwright Brian Friel, who died in 2015 at 86, won’t be traveling anymore. But I’ll bet he packed a tidy suitcase. Dancing at Lughnasa, Jobsite Theater’s season closer, manages to address a lot of issues: race, reli...
Published: 06/13/18
Ruth Eckerd Hall tees up comedy, romance and Kristin Chenoweth for 2018-19 Broadway season

Ruth Eckerd Hall tees up comedy, romance and Kristin Chenoweth for 2018-19 Broadway season

Ruth Eckerd Hall rolls out a new lineup of musicals for its 2018-19 season, a mix of comedy, favorite musicals and romance."For the last 35 years, Broadway has always been a staple at Ruth Eckerd Hall," chief executive officer Zev Buffman said in a p...
Published: 06/12/18
A tense night at the Tony Awards ends in euphoria for Largo doctor Jeffrey Grove

A tense night at the Tony Awards ends in euphoria for Largo doctor Jeffrey Grove

Dr. Jeffrey Grove sat three-quarters of the way back from the stage at Radio City Music Hall, waiting for his moment. The Largo physician made the trip with family to New York for Sunday’s Tony Awards, where he hoped to see his investment in O...
Published: 06/11/18
Neal Boyd, ‘America’s Got Talent’ winner, dies at 42

Neal Boyd, ‘America’s Got Talent’ winner, dies at 42

SIKESTON, Mo. — Neal Boyd, an opera singer who won America’s Got Talent and dabbled in Missouri politics, has died. Scott County Coroner Scott Amick says Boyd died around 6 p.m. Sunday at his mother’s house in Sikeston. He was 42. Amick says Boyd had...
Published: 06/11/18
Parkland drama teens bring down the house with stirring performance at Tony Awards

Parkland drama teens bring down the house with stirring performance at Tony Awards

Members of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s drama team stole the show at the 72nd Annual Tony Awards Sunday night.The performance brought the crowd— many of whom were wiping tears from their eyes— to its collective feet at the Radio City Music ...
Published: 06/11/18