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    Simple show, primal awe

    Director Julie Taymor's version offers breathtaking sights and many memorable performances.

    [Times photos: Lance Rothstein]
    Lionesses are on the hunt in the first act of The Lion King.

    By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 15, 2002

    TAMPA -- The Lion King may be the biggest, most expensive Broadway show ever made, but it's also surprisingly simple.

    When lionesses mourn the death of their king, white ribbons representing tears sprout from the eyes of their masks. A drought is depicted by a silken cloth disappearing into a hole in the raked stage.

    Giraffes in the opening procession are dancers whose legs and arms are fitted onto stilts, and their headgear portrays the animals' benign faces. The gazelle wheel -- with gazelle puppets leaping in a circle -- is a bicycle-like contraption pushed by an actor.

    The long-awaited national tour of the show arrived this weekend at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, with previews Friday night and Saturday afternoon and the official opening Saturday night.

    Under the direction of Julie Taymor, The Lion King is a joyous celebration of theatricality. For many people, it has been virtually a life-changing experience to see the age-old dramatic tools of masks, puppets and relatively low-tech stagecraft put to such brilliant, unpredictable use.

    Mufasa, played by Alton Fitzgerald White, talks to his son, Simba, played by Akil I. LuQman, in Saturday night's performance.
    And to think the source material was a Disney animated movie, the biggest seller of all time, with more than 40-million home videos of The Lion King in circulation.

    Hardly a person in the theater Saturday afternoon could have been unfamiliar with the tale of Mufasa, lion king of the Pride Lands, who is murdered by his brother, Scar.

    Mufasa's son and the future king, Simba, wrongly feeling responsible for his father's death in a wildebeest stampede, goes into exile. He falls under the tutelage of Timon the meerkat and a warthog named Pumbaa, who imbue him with the carefree philosophy of Hakuna Matata.

    Though the story is the same, the stage musical is very different from the movie. Most importantly, it is more African, with Lebo M's choral arrangements providing an earthy counterpoint to the sometimes insipid pop tunes of Elton John and Tim Rice. Choreographer Garth Fagan did an uncanny job of translating animal movement into dance.

    Fredi Walker-Browne, as baboon-shaman Rafiki, chants in African dialect to introduce The Circle of Life at the top of the show, and her performance sets a vibrant tone that never lets up.

    Seats in the orchestra section of Morsani Hall have been removed to accommodate the wildlife procession down two middle aisles.

    With his long, bedraggled tail and a mask with movement producing a richly menacing quality, Scar is the most interesting character, played by Patrick Page as a peevish villain who wants to be loved. Alton Fitzgerald White's Mufasa has a dancey style that gives the father-son relationship a nice playfulness.

    In Saturday's matinee, the young Simba and Nala, his queen-to-be, were played by Rydell Rollins and Alexandria Payne, riding atop fantasy ostriches in I Just Can't Wait to Be King. In the second act, Josh Tower is the teenage Simba, belting out Endless Night. Nala as a teenager is played by Tampa Bay area native Kissy Simmons, whose beautiful singing of Shadowland ranged from jazz lament to bold anthem.

    John Plumpis and Blake Hammond have fun with Timon and Pumbaa, respectively, the vaudeville act in the jungle. The Disney shtick can be hilarious, though Pumbaa's gas becomes a tiresome theme.

    Contrary to the hype that has surrounded the show since its 1997 premiere, The Lion King is not perfect. Occasionally, it bogs down in aimless sentimentality, and with a running time of nearly three hours, including intermission, some viewers -- not just the kids -- may find their attention wandering. The concluding battle, when Simba wins back Pride Rock from Scar and the hyenas, doesn't really work, consisting mainly of much running around.

    Even some of the effects, for all their wondrous invention, fall a bit flat. When Timon goes over a waterfall into a pool of cartoony crocodiles, it seems superfluous.

    But dramaturgy is almost beside the point in The Lion King, which communicates on a primal level that carries tremendous emotional force. Taymor's striking designs for the costumes and (with Michael Curry) the masks and puppets, the wonderfully flexible set of Richard Hudson and the vivid lighting of Donald Holder combine to create eye-popping stage pictures.

    At its best, the marriage of Taymor's visual genius with music and narrative is spine-tingling. Perhaps the most moving scene comes in the second-act reprise of He Lives in You, when Simba gazes up to a starry sky where nine sections of sculpture magically join to form an apparition of Mufasa.

    It's one of the great moments in theater history.

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