‘The Lion King’ always makes me cry

Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic May 31

This summer I will be weeping through “The Lion King,” for the third or fourth time. It’s not just the animal theme (but that helps). Or even the feline one. (I walked out of “Cats.” Life is just too short.)

What gets me is that killer opening number, one of the best in all theaterdom, featuring the irresistible choral-force, gospel-tinged pop anthem “Circle of Life,” sung (one hopes) in a paint-peeling voice by Rafiki, the world’s most famous mandrill. And then, like an accumulation of brushstrokes, animals start padding onstage from all quarters — the wings, the aisles — each one more surprising and delightful than the next.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Of course, these are actors and dancers, in traditional African costumes and outfitted with director Julie Taymor’s animalistic props. It’s the combination of masks, puppetry and fluid, idiosyncratic movement that brings a wild savanna to life. Giraffes pick their way with slow, careful footfalls. Zebras prance. Waves and waves of gazelles bound across the stage, multiplying magically because each performer wears them on his head and arms, and swoops them through space to suggest nothing less than the ineffable joy of existence.

I’m telling you, I get sobby just watching the video clip of this from the Tonys.

The choreography is not that complicated — but it is masterful.


(Pierre Mornet/For The Washington Post)

Nothing else in the musical quite equals the opening number. That’s okay. It’s a solidly entertaining show with a big heart and a message of substance: We live, we die; life goes on. Do your best while you’re here, and you’ll live in the hearts of those you leave behind. It’s an ancient philosophy, given beautiful shape in this musical.

Why does it get to me? Maybe it’s because the animals move so realistically, yet they are also so beautifully stylized. Maybe it’s because the creatures mill about in swirls and eddies, smoothly but not too smoothly, and they ring bells of recognition deep in my primate brain. It’s probably all of that, and also the slow, sure chord progressions and swelling vocals.

If you go, bring tissues.

At the National Gallery

For dry-eyed pleasures, I’m also going to be revisiting two shows at the National Gallery of Art: “Degas/Cassatt” and “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In.” I love the way Degas captures the expression of the body. For example, his “Woman in a Shallow Tub” is heavy with the slight awkwardness of the grooming ritual, that stiff ungainliness we all feel, especially first thing in the morning, when crouching or getting up or bending over. In “Henri Degas and His Niece Lucie Degas,” my eye goes to the graceful beauty of the man’s hands, and his somewhat tired-looking air of tolerance. The niece, who seems to be a pre-teen, adopts her uncle’s tilt of head, but she is worlds away from him in terms of naturalness; she is so aptly self-conscious.

Of course, Degas’ dancer paintings are without peer, and for the same reason. He captures not only the movement but the mentality behind the movement. I stand before his paintings, drawings and prints and feel that I have been ushered into a secret world, a place of intimacies and private moments. You can’t possibly feel alone when you look at a Degas.

By contrast, the Wyeth show, a collection of works with windows in them, is all about loneliness. Or rather, it is infused with solitude. There are so many shades of it in these works, empty of people but full of light and air, sky and shadow. In their emptiness, they brim with the intangibles of mood, climate and sense of place.

Wyeth has given us many cool, refreshing places to rest the eyes here, and the spirit. Also, he has given us breezes. The perfect touch for summer pleasure.

Disney’s The Lion King at the Kennedy Center Opera House, June 17-Aug. 17. Tickets $40-$190. 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

National Gallery: “Degas/Cassatt.” Through Oct. 5. “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In.” Through Nov. 30. Both free, the exhibits are in the West Building, main floor. www.nga.gov.

READ MORE:

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Anne Midgette’s classical music guilty pleasure

Hank Stuever’s TV guilty pleasure

Michael O’Sullivan’s action movie guilty pleasure

Ann Hornaday’s film guilty pleasure

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