ROOTS The Tree of Life in The Lion King.
The Lion King is roaring at the Providence Performing Arts Center through February 20, and the theatergoing denizens of this urban jungle are happy.
With all it has going for it — spectacle, music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, a redemption story cute as a Cub Scout — you'd have to be a sour old villain to hate it. At the matinee I caught, there were gaggles of kids, hushed and rapt in the right moments and cheering enthusiastically when virtue was rewarded.
The story couldn't be simpler. Lion cub Simba (Jerome Stephens Jr.), born to succeed Mufasa (Derrick Davis) as king of as far as they can see from Pride Rock, believes he has caused his father's death in a wilde-beest stampede. He is urged to that conclusion by his evil uncle Scar (J. Anthony Crane) and runs away. He buddies up with a couple of cheerful little creatures, meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and warthog Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz). He joins them in their happy, carefree lives until the grown-up Simba (Marquis Moss, standing in for Adam Jacobs when I saw it) returns to the pride because Scar and his hyena minions have overhunted the land, bringing starvation. Needless to say, Simba saves the day.
But anyone mainly interested in the simple story might as well just watch the 1994 Disney animation it was adapted from, the book written by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi. No, the reason that grown-ups come to this show, whether dragging a kid or two for an excuse or unselfconsciously alone, is that the production values of the above-appreciated spectacle would make a Roman emperor's circus look like a kindergarten pageant.
The production is pure, intensified theater. The magic is to the credit of director Julie Taymor, who studied historical puppetry in Japan and brings a Bunraku sensibility to the costumes here, which are the real stars of the show, along with the puppets and masks, some inhabited fully, others partially, some held before the performers. The giraffes are stilt walkers, short legs behind, long handheld legs in front. A cheetah is a kind of lithe feline centaur, sinuous front legs manipulated on sticks. A brace of gazelles leap in concert, propelled by one person walking gracefully. At one point, huge beasts, elephants, and rhinos approach down the aisles. When the dozen lionesses weep together, the actresses below the headdresses pull streamers from the eyes.
It's all delightfully acted, the genre conventions guiding behaviors on steel rails. Scar's sarcastic, British-accented lighthearted villainy was patented by Jeremy Irons in Die Hard (and then reprised in the Lion King animation). Simba's father is a properly towering, deep-voiced lion king. The pudgy warthog and skinny meerkat sound like they look. Young Simba's playmate and grown-up mate-to-be, Nala (Monique Lee and Syndee Winters), are straightforwardly established and the romance sweetly presented.
An effective framing device is the baboon narrator Rafiki (Brenda Mhlongo), who establishes a joyous, fun-loving background to the opening "Circle of Life" song that brings in the parade of animals. The song wonderfully interweaves with the Zulu chant "Nants' Ingonyama." Sung by Nala, "Shadow-lands" incorporates advice by Rafiki in her native tongue. Besides employing an entirely African-American cast, this show seems honestly appreciative of African culture.