Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa in "The Lion King." Photo by Michael Murphy
You never forget your first time.
Seeing “The Lion King.”
For me it was in Hollywood at the Pantages Theatre back in the late ‘90s or early aughts … I’m not certain. But many years afterward, I remember vividly the thrill of the musical’s first 10 minutes, the “Circle of Life”/”Nants Ingonyama” entrance of the African animals into the theater – a stately parade down the aisles toward the stage.
So it was again last night at the Civic Theatre downtown in Broadway San Diego’s presentation of the nationally touring “The Lion King.” This year marks 25 since the Disney production based on the 1994 animated film, with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, debuted on Broadway. Today “The Lion King” is the third-longest running musical on the Great White Way, and there’s no reason to believe it will be gone anytime soon.
The peerless Julie Taymor first directed “The Lion King” and created the costumes and mask and puppet design (with Michael Curry) for what is as dazzling to the eye as a theatrical production can be. There’s so much to take in and experience throughout the show one hardly knows where to focus.
If it sounds like I’m gushing, maybe that’s the sentimental attachment this big kid has for “The Lion King” and its coming-of-age story of life’s renewal and respect for all living things. Or maybe it’s just that all these years later it remains a damned entertaining spectacle.
The magic and precision of Taymor and Curry’s puppetry may exceed the book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi and even Sir Elton’s and Sir Tim’s score, but ultimately all components of “The Lion King” succeed harmoniously as they have from the beginning.
This touring ensemble is anchored by the ebullient Gugwana Diamini as the narrator Rafiki. In the musical’s three major comedic parts – that of Zazu, King Mufasa’s major domo, and young Simba’s friends Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the flatulent warthog – Jurgen Hooper, Tony Freeman and John E. Brady respectively are clear favorites with the audience, one populated heavily by parents with children. Gerald Ramsey projects the due integrity and gravity of Mufasa, though Spencer Plachy never seems as evil as he should be as the mad king Scar. Could be that his surrounding brigade of hilarious hyenas minimizes his menace.
Slightly overshadowed by all the larger-than-life supporting characters are Darian Sanders as the grown Simba and Kayla Cyphers portraying the lioness Nala who will become his queen. That’s no knock on their performances, which include some beautifully staged sequences: Nala’s flight from the Pride Rock corrupted by Scar in “Shadowlands”; Simba’s reckoning with his legacy and his duty in “He Lives in You”; and the balletic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which is “The Lion King’s” ballad partner to its carefree frolic “Hakuna Matata.”
You’ve read this far and not a word about the plot of “The Lion King,” right? As if you didn’t know it by now. Suffice it to say that the Circle of Life is destined to prevail and that all living creatures of the African savanna get their moments in the footlights. Oh, and Simba learns that growing up comes with sometimes painful lessons – all of them worthwhile.
“The Lion King” runs through Sept. 11 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.