by MIKE CHAIKEN
When one thinks of entertainment from Disney, thoughts tend to veer toward the cartoonish, cuddly, and mainstream.
You don’t typically think of cutting edge art.
So “The Lion King” is an anomaly in the Disney universe.
Based on the animated film of the same name, the stage show foregoes the Disney on Ice approach. There are no plush, fuzzy, costumes designed to make the performers into life-sized doppelgangers of the cartoon.
Instead, the stage show makes use of innovative puppetry (even for cartoon favorite Timon and Pumba) and ornate wood-carved headdresses to evoke the characters from the movie.
And rather than offer up an Americanized version of life on the African plains, the show faithfully pays tribute to the culture of the people of Africa—through the dancing, through the choral work, and even through the inflections in the delivery of lines.
The show also explores darker themes that might seem more appropriate for a Shakespearean tragedy rather than a fairy tale out of the Magic Kingdom.
None of this is really breaking news, of course. The show is the third longest running Broadway show of all time. From the sound of the applause and the standing ovation at the Aug. 2 performance of “The Lion King” at The Bushnell in Hartford, most paying customers knew what to expect and they loved the end results in this road production.
There were, however, a few disappointed audience members around us. They must have seen “Disney” and expected Disney Channel. They had a problem with the singing—some of the lyrics were delivered in languages native to the African continent—rather than English. And they were surprised there were children in the audience. They felt the darker dimensions of the story were more harmful than entertaining for impressionable young minds.
These dissenters proved that “The Lion King” is more than a piffle but a piece of art that causes a definitive reaction instead of a half-hearted smile.
The road tour that has come into Connecticut is bolstered by a strong cast.
Gerald Ramsey, who played Mufasa—the patriarch of the royal family– brought the right balance of gravitas fit for a king and compassion of a patient father. Additionally, he carried off the royal air necessary for the king of the jungle.
The young members of the cast, Salahedin Safi as the Young Simba—the lion king referenced in the title—and his lioness betrothed Danielle W. Jalade as the Young Nala, brought a wonderful youthful energy to the show. And they were the necessary entry point for the younger members of the audience to relate to the story.
Their elder counterparts—Jared Dixon as Simba and Nia Holloway as Nala—did also did a superb job of portraying a royal and dignified demeanor while still acknowledging the youthful inner conflict between a sense of duty and their own internal doubts.
One of the most memorable performances of the evening was Mark Campbell as Scar—Mufasa’s unscrupulous brother and the villain of the story. He managed to get the audience to detest him and root against him without veering into melodrama.
Many of the animal characters portrayed by puppeteers were also delightful. I particularly enjoyed Zazu (the avian royal court advisor puppeteered by Greg Jackson), Timon (the meercat puppeteered by Nick Cordileone), and Pumba (the warthog puppeteered this night by William John Austin). They brought a levity to the show (despite the criticisms of the show by the naysayers in the audience).
There was so much to like about the show—in particular, the music directed by James Dodgson, the choreography created by Garth Fagan, and the masks and puppet designs create by director Julie Taymor and Michael Curry.
The biggest drawback of the show is the first half is really long and the second half is a bit rushed.
“The Lion King” is not your typical Disney. But this road show in Connecticut proves that you don’t need Mickey Mouse to keep you smiling.
I give “The Lion King” 3 1/2 stars out of 4.
“The Lion King” settles into The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford until Sunday, Aug. 19 for a final matinee at 1 p.m. Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m. Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 1 and 6:30 p.m. and Tuesdays to Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.
For tickets, go to www.Bushnell.org