For a moment, put down your paper or turn away from your screen, and gaze into the wide, beseeching eyes of the adorable little boy or girl at your knee. "Please, please, please," those innocent eyes seem to be imploring, "take me to see 'The Lion King.' " And so you shall. You'll take the tots to "The Lion King" because, apart from the fact your competitive next-door neighbors already have tickets, it is your solemn duty as a red-blooded parent, aunt, uncle or guardian to indulge the children by any means necessary, including the pillaging of the family 401(k).
You'll take them because there's a strong likelihood that you'll find bedazzlement, too. Discerning adults may notice the story in this wildly popular Disney show is thinly stretched over a production that runs nearly three hours, and that the ballads Elton John and Tim Rice added for the stage version are yawners. But these things hardly matter. What the musical has accomplished is the inspired tailoring of an animated film to the imaginative measurements of the stage. When it comes to kids' spectacles, few productions do it better.
"The Lion King," which is in residence for three months at the Hippodrome Theatre, has arrived in Baltimore for the first time. It's astonishing how long this debut has taken, and even more so when you consider the magnitude of regional deprivation: The show has never been to Washington. Never. Disney unveiled "The Lion King" on Broadway in November 1997. That was just 10 months after Bill Clinton's second inaugural address. Second-graders from Bowie to Manassas have been up and running for less time than this musical.
The show does not appear to be on the radar for Washington, either, so the Hippodrome may be your best bet for some time. The touring production is a virtual photocopy of the Broadway original, and that largely is a good thing. Here and there are the telltale signs of a show in middle age: The voices are serviceable rather than memorable, and Garth Fagan's choreography sometimes feels a little tired.
Still, what the director, Julie Taymor, has done to sustain the musical's aura of enchantment remains very persuasive. As has been reported many times, Disney took a gamble on Taymor, a theatrical imagist with an affinity for exotic masks and puppets. With "Beauty and the Beast," its first attempt at transforming an animated feature into a live musical, Disney had gone the risk-free route, simply reproducing movie images in three dimensions. The result was a Broadway show as theme-park ride, slick and mechanical.
Taymor, though, was given much more freedom to reinterpret "The Lion King," the beloved 1994 blockbuster about the coming of age of Simba, a lion cub destined to rule Pride Rock. The match of director and material succeeded beyond expectations, establishing Disney as a real Broadway force. What Taymor came up with was a lavish retelling of the story that would demonstrate to children of the GameBoy generation that theater can still perform its own indelible acts of magic.
Musically and visually, Africa is as flavorfully woven into the stage version as it was lacking in the movie. Vying with the pop songs of John and Rice -- "Circle of Life," "Hakuna Matata" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" have all been retained -- is a music stream punctuated by drumbeats and harmonies that conjure thatched hamlets on the Congo. Rafiki, the wise old baboon of the movie, is depicted even more artfully onstage. In the person of a South African actress named Phindile, Rafiki is a vivacious primate/witch doctor.
The natural world, of course, is "The Lion King's" milieu, and Taymor sets the stage in wondrous fashion with the show's opening number, "Circle of Life." The gathering of the animals to celebrate Simba's birth is an occasion for a robust creative workout. The arrival of each species, ingeniously engineered for manipulation by actors, momentarily stops the breath: stately giraffes, handsome zebras, an elephant of impressive girth. Antelope are mounted on what appears to be a child's revolving toy, and birds fly like kites. The theater suddenly becomes an arty wildlife preserve.
There's a downside to this smashing start. It's the production's finest moment, the only one that really stays with you. Other entrancing images of flora and fauna will follow -- the wildebeest stampede is a particular pleasure -- but they embroider a lumbering story that adults and even tweeners are likely to find slow going at times.
The only conflict in the tale is provided by Simba's snarling Uncle Scar. Dan Donohue plays him as an even more sinister cousin to Captain Hook (what the late Jack Cassidy, a self-parodying actor made for devils, would have done with the part!). He's aided by a trio of salivating hyenas, portrayed with fiendish flair by Kimberly Hebert Gregory, James Brown-Orleans and Wayne Pyle. You'll marvel at the technical chasms that have been bridged to bring them to life. The musical, however, relies too heavily on their antics, and the songs in their habitat are tedious rather than spooky.
Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat and wart hog voiced in the movie by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, are played much the same way by John Plumpis and Ben Lipitz -- as critters whose home turf may as well have been the Catskills. The lions making up Simba's family and friends are suitably sturdy and dignified, with Adrienne Muller's Nala the most appealing.
No actor in "The Lion King," however, could upstage the director. Taymor is the unchallenged star of the evening, and 71/2 years after its premiere, the show, despite its excesses, remains her fertile canvas. Unlike some musicals designed as family entertainment, "The Lion King" does not try to remind kids of what they've already seen. It shows them novel ways to dream.
The Lion King, music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice; additional music and lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina and others; book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi; direction and costumes, Julie Taymor; choreography, Garth Fagan; sets, Richard Hudson; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Steve C. Kennedy; puppets and masks, Taymor and Michael Curry; music director, David Kreppel. With Thomas Corey Robinson, LaShanda Reese-Fletcher, S.J. Hannah, Mark Cameron Pow. Approximately 2 hours 50 minutes. Through Sept. 4 at the Hippodrome Theatre, Eutaw St., Baltimore. Call 800-551-SEAT or visit www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com.