Most stage adaptations of Disney animated films give off such an inescapable aroma of commercial calculation, are so clearly driven by a corporate imperative to leverage and monetize a popular brand, that it can be hard to enjoy them on their own terms.
Not so with “The Lion King.’’ Yes, of course, it is a financial blockbuster, having made umpteen gazillion dollars (that’s a mathematically precise number, by the way) for Disney since it premiered on Broadway in 1997, three years after the original movie’s box-office grosses got multiplex owners all over America gleefully singing “Hakuna Matata.’’ Ditto for last summer’s live-action film remake.
But despite those multiple iterations, the musical stage version of “The Lion King’’ remains a freshly transporting experience for audiences young and not-so-young, to judge by a touring production that has roared (sorry) into the Citizens Bank Opera House for a run through Oct. 27.
Although a couple of musical numbers, including the usually exhilarating “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,’’ were short on electricity on opening night, and a couple of performances were less than riveting, “The Lion King’’ is in some ways immune to individual failings, having been constructed by director Julie Taymor as a pulsing machine whose well-oiled parts reliably cohere into a dazzling whole.
This musical about young Simba’s journey from carefree childhood to wrenching loss to self-knowledge and full embrace of his destiny remains a career-defining artistic triumph for Taymor, whose Tony Award for “The Lion King’’ made her the first woman to win a Tony for directing a musical.
Abounding in sinuous movement, extraordinarily expressive masks, highly mobile scenery, and puppets that make the word “puppet’’ seem wanly inadequate, Taymor’s adaptation still offers a master class in how to transform the cinematic into the theatrical — or to fuse the two, as in the wildebeest stampede that changes Simba’s life. The opening “Circle of Life’’ number, in which the entire ensemble parades down the aisle and assembles in an eye-popping onstage menagerie — giraffes, an elephant, a rhino, antelopes, birds, the whole community of the Pridelands in teeming array — is still a knockout. Later on, a different kind of chill is elicited during the sinister tableau of “Be Prepared,’’ steeped in shadows and complete with goose-stepping hyenas pledging their fealty to the dastardly Scar, intent on both regicide and fratricide.
For all that, it would be a mistake to assume that the impact of “The Lion King’’ derives only from its pageantry and puppetry (Taymor designed the costumes and co-designed the masks and puppets in addition to directing), or even the irresistibly catchy tunes by Elton John (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics). Whether onscreen and onstage, its coming-of-age story is what gives this tale its enduringly beating heart.
At the center of the musical is the relationship between Simba, played as a young cub at the Opera House by Richard A. Phillips Jr. and as a grown lion by the charismatic Jared Dixon, and Mufasa, his father, the king of the Pridelands. Mufasa is portrayed by Gerald Ramsey, whose performance sometimes falls on the wrong side of the line between gravitas and stiffness. As Zazu, Mufasa’s bowler-hatted majordomo, Greg Jackson makes apoplexy amusing.
Mufasa’s evil and envious brother Scar, a portrait in silky villainy as played by Spencer Plachy, has his eye on the throne, and he achieves that sinister goal with the help of hyenas Shenzi (Martina Sykes), Banzai (Keith Bennett), and ultra-obtuse Ed (Robbie Swift). So Simba has to endure not just the loss of a beloved parent but also the guilt of believing that he is responsible for that death. Even for Disney, which has killed off many a fictional parent in its animated features over the decades, this is pretty rough stuff.
Simba’s subsequent flight thrusts him into the devil-may-care company of a meerkat named Timon (Nick Cordileone) and a warthog named Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), who are essentially the Abbott and Costello of the jungle. But Simba eventually answers the call of destiny and returns to confront Scar, thanks to the intervention of Rafiki (Buyi Zama), a wise shaman, and childhood friend Nala (Nia Holloway), now grown to adulthood. Simba and Nala take their relationship to the next level during the ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,’’ in a scene that manages to balance ardor with a delicate beauty.
The scene is emblematic of the artistic sure-footedness present in virtually every moment of the show, which continues to enthrall the eye and the ear alike, seize the imagination, and generally illuminate the possibilities of stagecraft, at least when in the hands of someone as inspired as Julie Taymor. Since journalists have their own imperatives, and one of them has to do with the eternal hunt for the local angle, I am duty-bound to remind you that Taymor is a native of Newton, and that it was a production of “The Lion King’’ that reopened the Opera House 15 years ago after an extensive restoration.
Well, the old joint looks great today. And so does “The Lion King.’’
THE LION KING
Music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice. Additional music and lyrics by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer. Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi. Directed by Julie Taymor. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston, through Oct. 27. Tickets start at $44.50, 866-870-2717, www.BroadwayinBoston.comDon Aucoin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on [email protected]