The Lion King has joined a road well-traveled, making the same journey as powerhouse musicals like Phantom of the Opera and Wicked (which actually returns again in January), the most popular musicals periodically dusted off for yet another tour.
But The Lion King has an edge that the other two can’t touch — the Disney name, for one, and a highly popular 1994 cartoon that gives it a durable name recognition for families and, in particular, their children.
That takes care of the financial end of things. But what really gives this production legs is a balanced artistry that elevates a family story into a memorable theater classic.
Even upon a third viewing, a whole new variety of nuances emerged. The swatches of sky that looked like handmade paper. Lighting that emulated the African heavens with such a natural touch at some times and the rich drama needed for others. Bold props (grassy headpieces, inflatable plants) that evoked the lush, exotic landscape.
Elton John’s score, brought to life by Tim Rice’s lyrics, had become eminently familiar and hummable. And director Julie Taymor’s vision was still breathtaking. Certainly the opening processional is one of the top schematic elements of all time. And the galloping herd of wildebeests always impresses. But now the birds-on-a-wire seemed to fill the Benedum Center as they swooped and dived in flight.
Which brings us to the movement. Moreso than Phantom and Wicked, Garth Fagan’s African-based choreography was essential in capturing the epic sweep to be found in Simba’s heart-warming, coming-of-age story. For that he received a basket of awards including a 1998 Tony and a 2000 Olivier award, then a year later, the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement.
The Pittsburgh cast, part of the “Gazelle Tour,” was populated with veterans, some returning from the Broadway and Las Vegas productions. This was an ensemble that knew how to deliver, from top to bottom.
The “Gazelle” subtitle was so apropos because the dancers were the strongest I’ve seen in LK, from the celebratory jumps and kicks to sinuous grasses. What was more noticeable this time was their animal-like movement, not only during the dances, but as the heart and soul of those fabulous puppets.
From the majestic elephant to tall, elegant giraffes, the animals came to life with the artists’ expert handling. The Gazelle wheel and Gazelles themselves had such a light buoyant quality that they fit the tour name like a glove. But probably the most beautiful was the alert and supple movement of the Cheetah (Sharron Lynn Williams), capped by her achingly deep back arch when she reared up on her back legs.
It only proved that you not only have to be a masterful mover in puppetry (as we saw recently in War Horse), but sometimes a well-trained dancer, as in this King-ly production.