"Please clear the aisles," an usher instructed as the intermission neared its end. "The animals will be coming." That's a directive you don't often hear at the theater. But at The Lion King, which has transformed the Fox into a veritable petting zoo until the end of July, the request makes perfect sense. At The Lion King, we viewers, like tourists on a safari, are allowed glimpses of lumbering elephants, swirling birds, stately giraffes, stampeding wildebeests and wisecracking wart hogs. At times the stage can barely contain such a wondrous profusion of color and movement. The action must spill out into the aisles.
You might say that it has spilled everywhere. Thirteen years after the animated film first captivated moviegoers, The Lion King has morphed into an entertainment juggernaut. The movie was followed by an animated TV series, two direct-to-video sequels, some video games and, a decade ago, the resplendent stage musical — dance, mime, puppetry and masks, all fused together by director Julie Taymor. Last week, as that Broadway production passed its 4,000th performance, it played to 100 percent capacity and grossed $1,243,095. The only show to rake in more money was Wicked, which has only rung up 1,500 performances.
Much credit for the show's longevity is due to the savvy shepherds at Disney Theatrical Productions. They continue to lavish so much attention on the property you'd think The Lion King was an uncertain entity about to make its Broadway debut next week, not a proven cash cow.
Now that this riff on Hamlet removed to an African savanna is an established part of the culture, it must be a temptation for Disney to want to stint on the production elements, yet it's a temptation they resist. The original Broadway version has a cast of 48; the company that played the Fox four years ago had a cast of 48; this current edition sports a cast of 49. Every time The Phantom of the Opera revisits the Fox, the number of musicians in the orchestra pit gets reduced. Not so here; the instrumentation remains pristine. "Everything exists in a delicate balance," Mufasa, the patriarchal lion king explains to Simba, his playful young son. Although Mufasa is describing the circle of life (and death) that is at the core of this extravagant entertainment, he might as well be explaining how to assemble and sustain a completely satisfying stage musical. Disney keeps that balance intact.
In a show that does not allow for individuality, the two standout performances come from the actors portraying Uncle Scar and the adult Simba. Kevin Gray, a dominant performer in the American musical theater, succeeds in making Scar invidious without being malevolent. Although there are scores of puppets onstage, no puppet is more riveting to watch than the cobra-striking head operated by the slithering Gray. (For an interview with Gray, see this week's sidebar, "Cast Him If You Can.") Clifton Oliver's Simba does not appear until the final moment of Act One, but he attractively invests the show's second half with a quality that is curiously missing amid all this theatrical rigidity: a welcome sense of life. Simba gets to breathe onstage, and with the personable Oliver we actually have someone to care for.
So The Lion King is back in town, eerily the same. As it was four years ago, so it is again. First-time viewers (many of whom also are surely first-time theatergoers) will continue to experience a dazzling immersion in the potentials of creative imagination. But for repeat viewers this caveat: To fully enjoy the show, it's not just the aisles you have to clear. Best also to cleanse the palate of memory and to erase the blackboard of your mind. The Lion King offers moments of incandescent stagecraft, but its contrived emotions are only cartoon-depth. It's just possible that the less you remember, the more you'll enjoy.