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Posted on Mar 31, 2017

Samoan star of LION KING gives commanding performance


(, March 28, 2017) Forget about being a 2-decades-old entertainment headline: “The Lion King,” now playing a four-week return run in Salt Lake City, offers its trademark beautiful theatrical spectacle. This touring cast is terrific.

The opening “Circle of Life” animal parade through the audience works beautifully in the spacious aisles of the new Eccles Theater, as does anchoring dueling percussionists on the theater’s second tiers.

And the house’s star-field ceiling adds depth and atmosphere to the musical’s Under the Stars scenes — especially as the king of the jungle, Gerald Ramsey’s Mufasa, schools his young son, Simba (Jordan Williams, who alternates with Devin Graves), in the influences of his ancestors. In Salt Lake City, “They Live in You” plays like a song written specifically for Utah’s genealogy-loving families.

All the elements that make this show the world’s top entertainment ticket are expertly delivered. The variety of puppets and majestic sets are only topped by director Julie Taymor’s cleverly conceived costumes and masks, co-designed by Michael Curry. I could have watched the giraffe puppets amble across the stage for days. And then there are the spectacularly athletic dancers, performing Garth Fagan’s Tony Award-winning choreography, that humanize the stories of these animals.

As fans of Disney’s 1994 animated movie and the 1997 Broadway musical know, “The Lion King” tells the “Hamlet”-esque story of Simba, a lion cub, who is forced to confront difficult truths about his restlessness after his uncle masterminds the king’s death.

From the show’s opening notes, South African actor Buyi Zama (a Broadway, London and Las Vegas veteran) stands out as the trickster Rafiki, the story’s shamanlike baboon/narrator. I keep thinking about what Rafiki conveyed through the rifling motions of her elongated digits. The singer’s pipes on “Nants Ingonyama” — the Zulu lyrics roughly translate to “Here comes a lion, Father” — have roof-rattling power.

Ramsey, a native Samoan who was a lead performer at Hawaii’s Polynesian Cultural Center, is commanding as Mufasa, the wise father. As the young lion cub, Williams is frisky and energetic, all elbows and bouncy hair — his wig deserves its own cameo notice. He’s well matched in energy by the sprightly Grier Burke, who plays the young Nala (alternating with Meilani Cisneros).

In the second act, Dashaun Young’s Simba (a veteran of the Broadway and Las Vegas casts) has charismatic stage presence and graceful chemistry with the adult Nala, Nia Holloway, whose standout “Shadowland” is richly textured. Simba’s friends-on-the-range, the meerkat Timon (played by understudy Tony Freeman) and warthog Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), offer a charmingly comedic first-act closer in “Hakuna Matata.”

A few quibbles: Mark Campbell’s Scar, Simba’s power-hungry uncle, offers an arch delivery that causes his lines to be swallowed in the sound mix, while the villainous character never rises above caricature. Scar’s scenes with the cleverly conceived hyenas stretch on too long, as does the vaudevillesque Timon-and-Pumbaa subplot. Expertly delivered, but tiresome.

And while this might be a family-friendly musical, the crying babe-in-arms at the end of my row wasn’t very enthralled by the animals of Pride Rock.

Overall, though, the big-ticket magic onstage holds up well. This tour of “Lion King” delivers a satisfying blend of Disneyfied commercialism with ambitiously clever puppetry, dance and costuming. Forget hipster irony: This is a story worth returning to for its multilayered storytelling.


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