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The once and future ‘ Lion King’ still powerful

Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman is a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer.

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  • ‘The Lion King’

    National tour of Disney musical about a murdered ruler, his power-mad brother and nephew denied access to the throne.

    WHEN: Through Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Also 1 p.m. Aug. 22.

    WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

    RUNNING TIME: 155 minutes.

    TICKETS: $55-175.

    DETAILS: 704-372-1000,

Whenever I’m reluctant to review a returning hit musical everyone knows, my boss likes to remind me there’s always someone in the audience who’ll see it for the first time.

On Thursday, watching “The Lion King,” that person was me – probably the last U.S. theater critic to encounter this classic (and a classic it is) in his professional capacity. My jaw dropped early and stayed down, as the fertile imagination of director Julie Taymor kept renewing the story I knew well from the animated movie.

It’s hard to believe the film reached the screen 19 years ago. Taymor’s Tony-winning stage version followed in 1997; it’s still at the Minskoff Theatre and is the fifth longest-running show in Broadway history.

At this point, with Taymor’s name on the tour as director and costume designer and mask/puppet co-designer, I imagine the production has been set in stone. But if you’ve never seen that stone before, how dazzlingly it glitters!

The opening number, “Circle of Life,” sets the majestic tone: Animals parade up the aisles of Belk Theater to the show’s most memorable number, gathering onstage to acknowledge baby Simba as the incipient king of the lion pride. (Note to latecomers admitted after that number: You’ve lost a quarter of the value of a ticket.)

From there to the reprise of “Circle” during another coronation at the end, nothing in the show becomes routine.

The story was old when Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet:” A brother murders a noble ruler to gain control of a kingdom, then banishes his nephew to presumed death before the young claimant returns. But every way of telling the story is new, from the spinning bicycle wheels that let puppet antelopes leap and plunge to the “grass”-covered company members who become the savannah or a forest glade.

The characters are as you remember them: Mufasa quiet and commanding, Scar effete and supercilious, Simba and Nala full of high spirits when young and bold assurance when they come into adulthood. Meerkat Timon still cracks wise; warthog Pumbaa still cracks wind. The part of the shrewd baboon, Rafiki, has been beefed up into a shaman with a sense of irony and magical powers, and she sometimes speaks in the click language I know as Xhosa.

The actors don’t have much room to grow in these characters, so they make their strongest impressions in the songs: a boisterous “Hakuna Matata,” a rousing “They Live in You,” a tender “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” that’s stronger for being undersold. (Not everything in the show is big; Taymor had the smarts to make this Oscar-winning song a subtle moment.) “Shadowland,” which doesn’t advance the plot, takes on poignancy in Nia Holloway’s rendition as Nala.

The show has weaknesses: The predatory-comic hyenas wear thin (no fault of the actors), and it might well seem long to an elementary schooler, though it didn’t to me.

But what to cut? I’d hate to have less of Tshidi Manye’s rakish Rafiki or the Timon-Pumbaa foolery of Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz. Each scene brings some physical innovation or narrative reimagining that leaves you smiling.

Look up “The Lion King” at the Internet Broadway Data Base, and you’ll find it categorized as “Musical, Puppets, Spectacle, Original.” All those things apply, but the last one counts most heavily. That’s why it still seems fresh when seen through a newbie’s eyes.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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