By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
KaTonga, Busch Gardens' new stage show, makes no compromises in raising the standard for theme park productions.
TAMPA - You often hear people say Broadway has been turned into a theme park, with kid-friendly shows such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Now, with the opening of KaTonga: Musical Tales from the Jungle at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, expect to hear that a theme park has been turned into Broadway.
No, the park doesn't have a Sardi's yet. And you're more likely to bump into a Burmese python or a flock of pink flamingos than the Runyonesque characters who used to populate Times Square.
But KaTonga has a pedigree worthy of a Broadway show, with a creative team made up of theatrical luminaries the likes of whom rarely work on, or at least take credit for, theme park shows.
Michael Curry designed the animal puppets and characters, just as he did for The Lion King. Donald Holder, the KaTonga lighting designer, won a Tony Award for his work on the groundbreaking Disney musical. Costumes (Frank Krenz), scenic design (James Leonard Joy) and sound design (Jim van Bergen) were all in top-level hands.
Such quality is evident in Busch Gardens' lavishly designed and engineered production that is projected to play as long as five years at the park, seven days a week, up to eight shows a day in peak seasons. That could eventually add up to more performances than Cats on Broadway, producer Don Frantz pointed out at Wednesday's gala premiere. The first day of regular performances was Thursday.
KaTonga, which runs 39 minutes, is said to be the Swahili word for a place in Africa where people tell stories. A master griot, or storyteller, named Karume (booming-voiced Larry Alan Coke) brings together four apprentices and challenges them to a competition of sorts. Each has a musical number that communicates an elemental truth through a story about animals in the jungle.
Ayo (Arvell Readus), in a song based on Don't Worry, Be Happy, tells of a monkey coming of age. Citiwala (Tymisha Harris) looks at life from a "bug's eye view" and sees the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Liyongo (Tyrone Robinson) performs Talk to the Animals to the bullfrog, turtle, otters, hippo and white egret gathered at a watering hole.
The final storyteller, Shade, has the showstopper, Celebrate the Light, a gospel-style anthem about a flood, composed by Desmond Boone and given a soaring performance by Ramona Dunlap. The youthful cast of 18 was terrific for the gala opening. The test will come when it is doing its fifth show on a day in the middle of summer.
KaTonga was custom built for the Moroccan Palace Theater. With seating for about 1,100, the theater is more intimate than the bay area's main tour venues, Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Morsani Hall, but it still has all the technical firepower of a Broadway house.
Given its African animal theme, KaTonga can't help but be reminiscent of The Lion King, but it is a different sort of show, very much intended to reinforce the experience of being at Busch Gardens. At the end, Karume delivers a little benediction about animals that is quite touching.
KaTonga is a warm-hearted set of fables ideal for children, and it never compromises its integrity by going the lowest-common-denominator route, such as milking easy laughs with shtick. In that respect, it is more true to African culture than The Lion King.
Naturally, the work of Curry and Holder is recognizably theirs in The Lion King and KaTonga, but that's not a bad thing when the two are plainly creating new work. Why else would you hire such distinctive artists?
When it is derivative, KaTonga borrows from the best. Chinese acrobats bring some Cirque du Soleil athleticism to the show. Choreographer Abdel R. Salaam's stylistic stew ranges from ritualistic modern dance to a break-dancing monkey.
Busch Gardens deserves credit for daring to go beyond tired commercial formulas with such an ambitious production. More than a few children will remember KaTonga long after memories of the rides and even the live animals in the park have faded.REVIEW
KaTonga: Musical Tales From the Jungle, performances daily at the Moroccan Palace Theater, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Busch Boulevard and 40th Street, Tampa. Park hours vary; call or check the Web site for details. Theater admission is included in park admission: $53.95 plus tax adults, $44.95 plus tax (children ages 3-9; free for children 2 and younger); $50.95 plus tax (55 and older). Parking: $7-$11. (813) 987-5280 or toll-free 1-888-800-5447; www.buschgardens.com