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The Circle of Broadway

April 30, 2010

In the interest of clearing the air of clichés, let me just say that Disney’s “The Lion King” roared into Overture Center this week, its pride of performers creating a stage extravaganza more theatrically visual than musically vibrant in its artistic veracity.

Whew! Glad that’s out of the way.

In reality, the music by Elton John and Tim Rice easily plays second chair to designer Julie Taymor’s phantasmagoria of costumes, masks and puppetry which gives “Lion King” an identity totally unique in musical theater. It’s a character that enthralled and engaged Thursday night’s capacity audience, perhaps in ways they have never been engaged before.

The Boston-born Taymor, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient and named along with the likes of Bill Gates, Maya Angelou and Yo-Yo Ma in the November 2005 issue of The Smithsonian as one of “35 who made a difference,” has created a world of light, sound and character utilizing age-old theatrical techniques that fully integrate with the humanity of her flesh-and-blood performers. It’s easy to see that the giraffes loping across Overture’s stage are performers on stilts with elaborate headpieces, or that the meerkat Timon is simply a full-body “mask” for actor Tyler Murree, who is even more fun to watch than the puppet character he is manipulating. But that’s the genius behind the production, and something totally unexpected and delightful in our computer effects-driven world.

The music is a bit muddled, but there are some outstanding moments, including “One by One,” a visual extravaganza that opens the second act.  “The Circle of Life,” the show’s signature tune, attempts to draw the themes of nobility, honesty and care for the land together and does so to whatever degree a song can. The show’s central ecological message seems to boil down to the notion that the world will go to hell if you let the bad guys run it, especially if they have anything to do with hyenas.

The story follows that of the movie, which is suitably simple for musical theater: lion cub gets kingdom; lion cub loses kingdom and sets out in the wilderness to find himself; and then grown lion cub regains kingdom, exposing a heinous lie and, presumably, saving the life of his pride and all that it rules. The fact that the narrative was adapted from Disney’s 1994 animated feature of the same name tells your something about the depth of the story. But since this same source material seems to have opened wide Taymor’s artistic license, we can be thankful that, in the case of “The Lion King,” no more literary depth was required.

The merchandizing efforts, unfortunately, run a little hot, with hawkers and vendors selling everything from soundtrack CDs to plush lions suitable for cuddling. The program book sells for $20, but comes with a $5 coupon that can be used in the purchase other items. Parents may want to have extra cash on hand or be ready to rein-in wide-eyed children who feel hey need a piece of the pride to fully enjoy the program.

“The Lion King” also is the latest in musical adaptations from well-known motion pictures, a practice that has come dominate the Broadway scene. Indeed, Overture Center’s rather sparse 2010-2011 performance calendar includes four of them: “Wicked,” the backstory of the witches from “The Wizard of Oz,”; “Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein,” adapted from the film of the same name; “Legally Blonde,” presumably taken from the Reese Witherspoon film; and “Drumline LIVE!,” which extracts its name if not its narrative from the 2002 movie about a Harlem street drummer recruited by a southern university.

“Mamma Mia!,” which has since become a film but originally was a derivative project of a different sort, is returning, as is “Les Misérables.” Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, “Le Miz” is perhaps the only show that can claim artistic originality. There have film versions of that one, too, but largely without music.

Call it “the Circle of Broadway” if you like, but if it can sell tickets to live performances that enthrall, excite and entertain, then who’s to say any of them lack artistic veracity?

SIDEBAR: Beware the Broadway Menu

“The Lion King” may be one of the most expensive shows ever to arrive at Overture Center, and the neighbors seem to be taking advantage of the presumed abundance of cash flow.

We stopped in at The Icon, located just across the street from Overture, prior to Thursday’s show, hoping to grab a few tapas and glasses of wine at one of our favorite restaurants. We were faced with “Broadway menu,” a prix fixe dinner menu similar to what you might see on Valentines Days, Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day, requiring a $28.95 commitment for three courses chosen from a variety of selections. We were told we could order from the menu, but then would have to sit at the bar.

Chances are there was value to be received for the money committed; however, we like to be the ones to make the choice. We went elsewhere and had a perfectly satisfying meal. Although we didn’t ask, I’m guessing that Icon’s “Broadway menu” may apply throughout the entire run of the “Lion King,” which closes May 23. We just wanted you to know so that you could plan accordingly.

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