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