Sunday, June 28, 2009

'The Lion King' Makes Vegas and Disney a Perfect Match

The Lion King's Tree of Life
(Original Broadway Cast)
Las Vegas audiences are hard to figure when it comes to Broadway shows. What plays well back east and on national tours offers no guarantee of success on the Strip. While "Phantom" and "Mamma Mia" have done well here, "Spamalot," "Hairspray," and "Avenue Q," ehhh, not so much.

So, the question is, how will Disney do in Vegas? Family values meets adult excess, can it really work?

After seeing "The Lion King" last night at Mandalay Bay, my answer is a resounding "YES."

"The Lion King" opened in Las Vegas last month to the same glowing reviews it's received since debuting on Broadway over ten years ago. A spectacle of sight and sound, it's the perfect fit for Vegas show goers accustomed to the sensory overload of Cirque du Soleil or Blue Man Group, but with a lot more emotion and heart. Judging from the enthusiastic, near-capacity crowd I was in, "The Lion King" may just have a bright and lengthy future ahead of it.

The story is familiar to even the most casual of Disney fans. Simba, a young lion, must choose between the two life paths set before him: the path of his father, Mufasa, the mighty king of the pride lands; or the path of least resistance, an escapist world in the jungle where "hakuna matata" ("no worries") is the philosophy to live by. In choosing, Simba must come to grips with his nagging sense of responsibility and ultimately confront his treacherous uncle Scar, who has plans of his own to rule the African savanna.

Giraffes roam the savanna.
"The Lion King" tells its tale on stage utilizing an exquisite blend of lighting, rotating sets and nifty gadgetry. After seeing many stills and clips of the stage production over the years, I always wondered how much of a distraction the combination of live actors, masks and mechanical puppets would be. It turns out to be no distraction at all as they seamlessly meld their animal and anthropomorphic characteristics. The audience's attention is always directed where it needs to be, whether on an actor's face, the lion mask/headdress he or she wears, or the whirligig contraptions that evoke soaring birds and frolicking antelope. It's a feast for the eyes that requires only your very willing imagination to make complete.

The cast is superior, with many of the actors having previously performed in other "Lion King" productions worldwide. Tops among them is Buyi Zama as the playful but wise baboon shaman Rafiki. Her opening chants in her native Zulu dialect fill the theater with joyful noise, and as the story progresses she is the glue that holds it together, connecting the characters to one another and pointing Simba towards his destiny. Also noteworthy is Thom Sesma, one of the few newcomers to "The Lion King" cast, gleefully slimy and menacing as Scar.

Buyi Zama (Rafiki) at the
D23 meet and greet
Kudos to Disney's official fan club, D23, for organizing last night's "behind-the-scenes experience." After the show, D23 members were treated to a meet-and-greet with members of the cast, who, despite being tired from giving two performances that day, were very gracious and generous with their time. They stayed well after the show to answer questions, sign autographs and pose for pictures. I was very pleased to see that Buyi Zama was just as energetic and fun in person as her stage persona was. I also enjoyed chatting with Patrick Kerr, who shared how it took him two months to master the performance puppetry of his character Zazu, Mufasa's horn billed majordomo. Also joining us were Thom Sesma, Alton White (Mufasa), Kissy Simmons (Nala) and Jacquelyn Renae Hodges (Shenzi).

"The Lion King" has on open-ended run at Mandalay Bay with plans of sticking around for a while. I see no reason why it can't. Ten-plus years in production have not reduced its lustre. It's a thrilling, engaging, fun and heart-warming experience that more than holds its own against any other entertainment offering on the Las Vegas Strip.

Who said Las Vegas and Disney couldn't mix? No worries here.

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