Buyi Zama is Rafiki in the touring production of “The Lion King,” onstage at the Orpheum through Dec. 31. (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

‘Lion King’ amazing as ever

The opening of “The Lion King” just might be the most thrilling scene in musical theater — ever.

As Rafiki the mandrill (the adorable Buyi Zama, a veteran in the role) intones “Circle of Life,” and the most extraordinary theatrical, life-sized puppet-animals — an elephant, rhino, giraffes, antelopes, a cheetah — come down the aisles of the theater and fill the stage, it’s breathtaking, heart-stopping, even tears (of joy) jerking.

At Thursday’s San Francisco opening of the North American tour, which runs through Dec. 31, everyone in the Orpheum’s audience was smiling, witnessing the amazing display.

The Tony Award-winning show’s box office gross is the biggest in entertainment history and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s a visual spectacle of high order, the kind only Disney can do, based on a blockbuster animated family film.

Some 20 years after it debuted on Broadway (and in The City for the third time) the creation of director, puppet maker, costume designer and co-lyricist Julie Taymor holds up — even with ear-splitting sound glitches like what happened at Thursday’s opening. But no one seemed to mind too much when the show was stopped for several minutes in Act 1 to make the fixes.

While the universal story of lion cub Simba’s coming-of-age (book by movie co-director Roger Allers and screenplay co-writer Irene Mecchi) and familiar score (by Elton John, Tim Rice and Lebo M) are undeniably appealing, “The Lion King’s” genius really is in its innovative, inventive staging, with scenery by Richard Hudson, lighting by Donald Holder, and naturalistic yet fantastic masks and puppets by Taymor and Michael Curry.

No expense has been spared. When Simba’s friend, hornbill Zazu (Drew Hirshfield) wisecracks that the colorful stage curtain looks like it comes from “Tarjay,” it really is a joke: “The Lion King’s” sumptuous, painstaking, intricately detailed design is strictly couture.

The actors do show spirit as they fill the costumes, from Jalen Harris as grown-up Simba to Gerald Ramsey as Simba’s noble father Mufasa to Mark Campbell as his evil brother Scar, and Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Keith Bennett and Robbie Swift as Scar’s nasty cohorts, the hyenas.

Rounding out the cast are tour veterans Nick Cordileone as meerkat Timon and Ben Lipitz as warthog Pumbaa, who befriend young Simba (BJ Covington on opening night), and whose antics most resemble their cartoon counterparts.

In the 21 century, “The Lion King” remains a winner, even for musical lovers who’ve seen “The Book of Mormon” and will never hear the chipper tune “Hakuna Matata” the same way again.

REVIEW
The Lion King
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 31
Tickets: $55 to 228
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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