The TheatreguideLondon Review
Since this review was written, The Lion King won Olivier Awards for Costume Design and Choreography.
The first two minutes of The Lion King rank among my greatest experiences in a lifetime of theatre-going. The next 150 minutes do not.
When the Disney corporation, famous for milking every last dollar out of their property, decided to invade Broadway, their first attempt was the rather literalist staging of Beauty and the Beast. So it surprised everyone when they turned to avant garde director Julie Taymor for The Lion King. But there are brains between those mouse ears, because director-designer Taymor, rather than duplicating the animated film onstage, recreated it for theatre.
You've seen the photos. Rather than Cats-like lion costumes, she designed masks that are really hats, so the lion faces sit atop the actors' own. (Scar's is cantilevered, so that it swings forward menacingly when he charges). And the other animals are created by life-sized puppetry or extensions of the performers' bodies.
That's what makes the opening so breath-taking, when you first see the visually glorious and imagination-engaging animals, and wonder whether you'll be able to stand a whole evening of such beauty. Don't worry. It very quickly settles into being The Lion King, which is a whole lot less interesting.
Taymor has supplemented the John-Rice score with African melodies by Lebo M, and used them to expand the role of the lionesses, who become a stately and elegant chorus, and a force for Scar to reckon with. But not much else really works visually, and some moments, like the stampede and Scar's downfall, are particularly weak.
The play is pretty much actor-proof, though no one can match Jeremy Irons' oily villainy, so even as the show goes into replacement casts it should remain much like its early days.
Judging from the family sitting next to me, even children will grow restless pretty quickly. The first two minutes, which are extraordinary, are almost worth the price of admission, but not quite.
(Note that long-running shows will have had cast changes since our review was written)
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Review - The Lion King - Lyceum 1999