Review: The Lion King

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Buyi Zama stars as Rafiki in The Lion King.
  • Buyi Zama stars as Rafiki in The Lion King.

Scar, the bitter, devious brother of King Mufasa, doesn’t seem like he has what it takes to be leader of the Pride Lands in Disney’s The Lion King, and when he and his unlikely allies, a pack of hyenas, take over, the kingdom falls apart. It sets up the challenge for Mufasa’s son Simba to try to restore order, in the long-running musical, currently at Saenger Theatre.

The Lion King opened in 1997 and has become one of Broadway’s longest running shows, combining a fairy tale-like story, a soaring score by Elton John and Tim Rice and brilliant costuming and movement that conjure the teeming wildlife of an African savannah. A touring production last visited New Orleans in 2012, and the current cast makes the show as pleasing as ever.

In The Lion King’s signature opening scene (“Circle of Life”), giraffes walk across the stage in their slow, jerky gait, animated by ensemble members on four stilts. Antelopes gallop around a slowly strutting cheetah with large paws animated like rod puppets. Zebras trot down the aisles, followed by a rhino and elephant, both requiring at least two actors. It’s an attention-grabbing flurry of action coming from all directions, but even scenes that are almost free of creatures, such as the grasslands scene with a large troupe of dancers wearing flat, square headpieces of tall grass, use clever movement to evoke the African plains.

There are few twists or turns in The Lion King’s story. Mufasa’s son Simba is born to the delight of all creatures except Scar. After enlisting the aid of a pack of creepy hyenas, Scar sets out to usurp the crown as Simba plays with the young lioness Nala. The shamanlike Rafiki, played exuberantly by Buyi Zama, watches the action and occasionally intervenes. Simba’s rise is treated more as an inevitability than the result of good character development, but the story works.

Gerald Ramsey stars as Simba  in The Lion King.
  • Gerald Ramsey stars as Simba in The Lion King.

The show is most fun when the stage is full of animals or a massive contingent of singers and dancers. The gathering army of hyenas in “Be Prepared” is a fun mess of menace and chaotic energy amid the set’s huge, moving pile of elephant bones. There are almost no lulls in the action, and the show stretches to two-and-a-half hours, including intermission.

There are a couple of weak spots. Young Simba and Nala struggle to keep up with the song “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” while riding massive ostrich puppets amid towering giraffes and four creatures that look like giant ragdolls (it’s not clear what they’re supposed to be). The overly silly and frenetic number seems out of place.

Simba befriends the warthog Pumbaa and the meerkat Timon, who provide comic relief, especially via fart jokes, and deliver one of the show’s memorable tunes, “Hakuna Matata.” Timon is played as a nearly human-size puppet, partially attached to a puppeteer in a contrasting bright green costume, and it’s hard not to watch the puppeteer instead of the puppet.

Notable performances include Gerald Ramsey’s commanding Mufasa (who also delivers the standout solo “They Live in You”), Drew Hirshfield as the flummoxed royal aide Zazu, Marc Campbell’s petulant Scar, Nia Holloway as the adult Nala and Ben Lipitz as the wisecracking Pumbaa.

Uplifting music, demanding choreography and use of the theater’s aisles and balcony give The Lion King a pageantry that’s pleasing to newcomers and fans alike.

The Lion King
Through Jan. 29
Showtimes vary
Saenger Theatre, 1111 Canal St., (504) 525-1052
Tickets $35-$155 plus fees

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