‘The Lion King,’ exuberant as ever, takes pride of place at the Kennedy Center


Nia Holloway as Nala in “The Lion King,” playing at Kennedy Center. (Joan Marcus)

In October 1997, the musical “Side Show” officially opened on Broadway the very day after “The Lion King” began previews. “Side Show” closed in three months. “The Lion King” has been doing royally good business for 17 years.

Oddly but rather thrillingly, the two shows are back together now at the Kennedy Center. The shrewdly retooled “Side Show,” based on the true story of conjoined twin sisters, is getting a brave new life in the Eisenhower Theater. Next door in the Opera House, “The Lion King” is the same as it ever was: a lavishly joyful and spirited extravaganza.

You can’t say it has worn out its welcome here. This is only the second time that director Julie Taymor’s deliriously inventive staging has come to Washington, and the last visit was in 2008. Back then, some of the patrons at Saturday night’s packed official opening were surely too young to say “hakuna matata.”

The show still disarms audiences with its opening parade of giraffes, gazelles and even an elephant as the theater fills with animal figures to the infectious strains of “Circle of Life.” As always, it takes only a minute for the audience to be struck with wonder by Taymor’s puppetry (designed with Michael Curry), with a wave of happy applause washing through the house.

That’s the magnetic opening of a musical that famously went its own way in adapting Disney’s 1994 hit animated film about a young lion coming of age. The story is full of heroes, from the patriarch, Mufasa (performed with majestic calm by L. Steven Taylor), and his son Simba (an athletic and winning Jelani Remy) to the lioness Nala (a poised Nia Holloway), all arrayed against Mufasa’s power-hungry brother, Scar (Patrick R. Brown, in a devious mode), and his pack of yakking hyenas.

That primal good-evil plot and circle-of-life theme obviously inspired Taymor’s yen for ritual and myth in a way that somehow tied her in knots more recently with “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” her ultra-expensive, famously troubled musical with U2’s Bono and The Edge. Here, the Elton John-Tim Rice songs (including “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”) are expanded and deepened; percussionists nested on both sides of the stage supply a steady pulse of African rhythms, while a capella choral bursts and earthy dancing punctuated with leaps and twists sweep us toward a mystical realm. And while the acting and singing are consistently smart and sensitive, this is above all a measured, epic tale told with restless and often breathtaking images.

There is the lions’ Pride Rock and its antithesis, the hyenas’ dead realm of hulking skeletons in the elephant graveyard. There is a wildebeest stampede that seems to come right at you. There is a remarkable sequence with Timon the meerkat being swept downstream and nearly gobbled up by crocodiles.

On it goes, with the eye mesmerized by the cascade of gazelle puppets and the heart arrested by the elegant lionesses, whether they are on the prowl or mourning the death of their king.

If you felt like carping at all (and why would you?), you could note that some of the comedy is more boisterous than tickling, and that “The Lion King” — like so many musicals in our adaptation-happy era — makes a bigger star of the title than of the performers. Tshidi Manye has the most colorful role as Rafiki the baboon soothsayer, and her charisma is an outsize delight.

Yet the respect and reserve of the sturdy cast is in key with the show’s deeper themes, and the visual inventiveness that effortlessly segues from shadow play to puppetry to conventional musical theater somehow magically adds up to something that’s not merely spectacular, but is also admirably soulful. It’s why “The Lion King” still roars.

The Lion King

Music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi. Additional music and lyrics by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer. Directed by Julie Taymor. Choreography, Garth Fagan; sets, Richard Hudson; costumes, Julie Taymor; lighting, Donald Holder; sound design, Steve Canyon Kennedy; music director, Rick Snyder. With Tryphena Wade, Andrew Gorell, Jordan A. Hall, Nathaniel Logan McIntyre, Nya Cymone Carter, Tyrah Skye Odoms, Rashada Dawan, Keith Bennett, Robbie Swift, Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz. Through Aug. 17 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. About 2 hours, 40 minutes. Tickets $40-$190, subject to change. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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