‘Lion King’ roars again in The City

Courtesy PhotoSyndee Winters

Back in 1998, Julie Taymor became the first woman to nab a Tony Award for best direction of a musical and best costumes for the “The Lion King.” The creative beast, based on the 1994 Disney film of the same name, went on to collect a number of other awards and become the highest-grossing musical of all time.

So where do you go from there? Back to San Francisco, apparently.

The hit production last played The City in 2004, and associate director John Stefaniuk says respecting Taymor’s fascinating vision is always in the forefront of everybody’s mind.

“The great thing about Julie is that she is an incredible artist,” Stefaniuk says. “She allows all different textures and fabrics to illuminate her world, and illuminate the show each night. But what is really wonderful about her is that she allows people with her to embrace that. The challenge is to really live up to what that her vision is.”

With 134 people in the company, 49 of whom are castmembers, that can, at times, seem daunting.

“I think that many stage shows become a carbon copy of themselves,” Stefaniuk adds. “So that whatever happened on opening night, it’s  recreated within an inch of its life. What happens then, is that you begin to see a copy of a copy of a copy, and it loses its integrity.

“I think what’s beautiful about ‘The Lion King’ is that we’ve allowed the show to keep growing and be interpreted with each group of [new] performers so that the actors playing each role tackle the material for themselves. It allows the show to be fresh; something that it is meant to be. And people coming to see it are seeing something new.”

The memorable songs, “Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” are intact, but much like the screen-to-stage version of “Beauty and the Beast,” more songs were added here — “Rhythm of the Pride Lands” and “Morning Report” to name but two.

The show has also managed to maintain its immense popularity through a lavish display of unique puppetry. Actors in ornate animal costumes use various tools to move their animal bodies — actors as giraffes use stilts, and there’s some mechanical magic in the wild headpieces worn by the castmembers playing Mufasa and Scar, for instance.

All that, along with music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, a musical score by Hans Zimmer, and a compelling book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, still makes this one of the most memorable theatrical tribes to ever grace the stage.

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