‘Lion King’ dazzles with pride, joy

Courtesy PhotoAmazing animal act: Jelani Remy

Can you feel the love tonight? The answer to that question is an unequivocal “yes” when referring to the tour of “The Lion King.”

It’s easy to understand why the show, at the Orpheum Theatre through Jan. 13, is the biggest Broadway money-maker of all time.

“The Lion King” isn’t your basic musical: It’s a gigantic, fluid piece of visual art for kids and adults. It also happens to have catchy songs and a touching and funny book based on a huge hit animated family film.

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Fifteen years after it stormed Broadway and won six major Tony Awards, the Disney-manufactured show has made its way to The City for second time since 2004.  

Director-puppet maker-costume designer and co-lyricist Julie Taymor is a genius. Her extraordinary reinvention of the Disney movie about the lion cub Simba’s tumultuous coming of age exemplifies the unthinkable heights to which the creative mind can soar.

From the first strains of Rafiki’s (Buyi Zama) opening song “Circle of Life.” and the grand entrance of the most amazing ever life-sized puppet animals – an elephant, rhino, giraffes, antelopes, a cheetah – the audience is mesmerized.

These aren’t big plush toys. Taymor and puppet design partner Michael Curry’s creations are both naturalistic and fantastic. Ingeniously composed using carefully calibrated masks and fabric, they complement, rather than cover up, the actors.

At least half the fun of the show is trying to figure out how the performers manipulate their complex outerwear.

The nasty hyenas — Rashada Dawan as Shenzi, Keith Bennett as Banzai and Robbie Swift as Ed — fascinate on this front.

The dancers’ costumes are equally amazing. Wearing headdresses of squares of sprouting blades, they set the stage in African grasslands in an opening scene.

With a book attributed to Roger Allers (movie co-director) and Irene Mecchi (screenplay co-writer), there are nods to the cartoon: Wisecracking meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and sidekick warthog Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), who befriend Simba (Jelani Remy) after he’s banished from his home, have a cute shtick and clearly resemble their movie counterparts.

But “The Lion King’s” unending wonder is in its ingenuity, from an amazingly crafted, massive stampede in which Simba’s noble father Mufasa (Dionna Randolph) dies, all the way down to a teeny, scurrying shadow puppet mouse.

The score, including the ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the feel-good “Hakuna Matata” and African-flavored act-openers “Circle of Life” and “One by One,” sounds terrific sung by the powerfully voiced cast.

Still, most people aren’t going to leave humming the songs. But they will recount their joy and awe in witnessing a warm, magnificent blend of art and life.

artsJulie TaymorLion Kingorpheum theatre

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