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THE LION KING returns to SHN Orpheum Theatre for the Holiday season through Dec 31st. It is packing in crowds and remains the most profitable musical still on its national tours and on Broadway. The multi-Tony-winning musical recently passed "The Phantom of the Opera" as the highest grossing stage show ever. The LION is celebrating 20 years and he still has most of his roar. The music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice’s original work from the film. For the stage Hans Zimmer contributes, and choral arrangements by Lebo M. Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, directed by Berkeley CA native, Julie Taymor, she was nominated for ten 1998 Tony Awards, winning six for Best Musical, and Direction, including Choreography, Scenic Design, Costume Design, and Best Lighting Design. The Tony award winning elements are still present in the US National Tour which has been running strong since 2003.

From the first drum beats of THE LION KING, your senses are wowed with creative wonders that don't quit until the final bows. As you settle into your seat, you see Taymor’s spectacular animal puppets on parade as a humongous elephant ambles down the aisle. By the time the population of the African savanna has reached the stage for the "Circle of Life" scene, "The Lion King" has cast its magic spell and you may as well just sit back and enjoy the ride. But after 20 years this ride has slowed down a bit, and the tour has some bumps. THE LION KING is a major franchise and is a solid cash cow of stunning theatre. This current version runs 2 1/2 hours, and can be a little slow, and patchy. At the opening-night sold out performance, there was some tech issues in Act 1 that caused a five-minute break while the crew fixed the problem. I felt bad for some who had paid more than $200.00 a seat, but the kids in the mixed crowd did not seem to mind. And I forgot how much this production is a wonder for children.

The stage filled with stilted giraffes, graceful leopards and leaping antelopes welcoming the birth of Simba, adored son of lion King Mufasa. Simba begins as an animal prince in the tradition of many Disney classics. After the tragic loss of a parent, he is left on his own at a young age before finding friendship and love and assuming his rightful role in the animal kingdom, "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" is the anthem of arrogant cub Simba wonderfully played by BJ Covington and Jordan Williams, "Hakuna Matata" is the adolescent slacker. The older Simba, the handsome tenor Dashaun Young, and the reprise of "Circle of Life" finds the young man Lion achieving his destiny.

Its is a wonderful classic Disney story with the icon villain and his henchmen. Bully Scar rivals Shakespeare's greatest betrayers as Claudius, Hamlet's uncle who commits fratricide to take the throne. The powerful Mark Campbell as Simba's Uncle Scar plays it nice and mean as he reveals his murderous plans to his hyenas to take over the kingdom as he sings “Be Prepared”. Scar convinces Simba that he's to blame for his father's death, and the boy runs away, leaving the pride lands to Scar, the hyenas and a deadly dark future. He finds a relative paradise when he meets Timon and Pumba delightfully played by Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz. Eventually he is reminded by Nala (Nia Halloway) and a vision of his father that it's time to go home and reclaim his birthright. Outstanding performances include Mufasa the bird by the amazing Gerald Ramsey and the icon of the show’s opening number Rafiki soulfully played by Buyi Zama as she sings “Nants Ingonyama”.

The familiar songs, like “Circle Of Life,” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” “Hakuna Matata,” and “Be Prepared” are so iconic that a few of the newer songs, namely “Chow Down,” and “The Madness of King Scar” seem to lack the polish and magic of the originals. The new numbers stand out “Shadowland,” “Endless Night” and most importantly “He Lives In You” are show stoppers that flow easily into the mood of the original story and score. It's Ms.Taymor's remarkable costume and puppet designs, working with Michael Curry and scenic designer Richard Hudson that have elevated the musical to a sell out wherever city the kingdom visits.

But the Lions golden manes and threadbare costumes, reveals its age. It sounds a bit muted and tinny through a lost amplification system that throws off some key songs and monologues. Nevertheless, costuming, staging and special effects all remain astonishing, and the cast leads are all keen. "There's more to being a king than getting your way all the time," Mufasa to Simba. And understanding that not all songs can be winners like "Hakuna Matata" for this tour the producers cut "The Morning Report," yet the new song "Chow Down" is off beat and should be sent to the graveyard.. Against the rest of the cleverly crafted puppets, Timon, the meerkat, looks accomplished and Pumbaa, the warthog, looks like the perfect animated pal you’d want as your halloween sidekick. Their designs are Disney cartoonish for this artfully, etched love and friendship of the story.

The second act opens with “One By One” as bird puppets "fly" through the Orpheum theatre from the balcony to the orchestra. It's a moment to take in the smaller wonders of the show. Mufasa's ghost mask, appearing to his son in the second act, is a touching and technical stunner. The moving emotion comes together for the gospel reprise of "He Lives in You." The biggest touring Broadway show, still packs a wallop of a visual and emotional punch. It is the perfect holiday treat, and yes, it can be an expensive family night out. But SHN offers some great deals, including $40.00 cash only rush seats that go on sale two hours before curtain time only at the box office. After 20 years Bay area audiences will always hold special, homegrown love for the current king of all musicals and this is a sure family evening of wonderful theatre.



Music and Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice’s

Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi

Directed by JulieTaymor


1192 Market Street at Hyde Street

Through December 31, 2016

Running Time 2 hours 30 minutes

$40.00 cash only - rush seats on sale two hours before curtain time only at the box office

Photo Credit: JOAN MARCUS

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