Rumble in the Jungle – A review of THE LION KING – The Broadway Musical on October 16, 1997 at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City

Pride Rock arrived on Broadway as preview performances of Disney’s “The Lion King” commenced starring John Vickery, known to us Babylonians as the late lamented Neroon and in a second season episode – sans bonehead – as Mr. Welles of the nefarious Nightwatch in “The Fall of Night”.

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Based on the animated film of the same name (picture “Hamlet” with animals), Julie Taymor, the director, showcases within the show her unique and varied knowledge of and appreciation for: opera, puppetry, Indonesian masked dance, and Japanese Bunraku. The stage show is presented with amazing feats of imagination utilizing bright colorful costumes and combinations of masks and puppetry to vividly enliven the animal characters and project the individuals underneath. The show opens with a female Rafiki chanting on stage, as the entire ensemble begins to appear as elephants, panthers, zebras, and high soaring kite-birds make their way down the aisles of the theatre singing “Circle of Life”. The African theme has been wonderfully enhanced with Lebo M adding new songs and reworking several from the original film soundtrack as well. Also performing as part of the chorus, Lebo M alerts the audience in the lobby to the end of intermission with African chants.

All of “The Lion King’s” actors deserve great praise for the passion and fluidity with which they conveyed their characters’ expression and emotion and each particular animal’s grace while in many cases manipulating complex costuming. Even the tall grasses, leaves and plants on the bare stage are carefully choreographed (yes – the majority of the set’s foliage is played by ensemble actors!) to work along with the animals and bring Taymor’s jungle literally to life.

Tsidii Le Loka, a female South African vocalist wonderfully speaks, sings and chants as Rafiki, a spiritually endowed character blessed with visions reminiscent of an African shaman. Samuel E. Wright as Mufasa is majestically regal in his performance as the reigning king eager to instill a sense of self and pride to his young son, Simba, the future Lion King. Samuel E. Wright is no stranger to Disney; he provided the voice to Sebastian, the little crab with the calypso beat in another Disney animated film, “The Little Mermaid”. Max Casella, best known to television audiences as Vinny, the best friend of Doogie Houser, portrays the comic character Timon, the meerkat in a Laurel and Hardyesque turn with his stage partner Tom Alan Robbins, as the warthog, Pumbaa.

Broadway veteran, John Vickery portrays the villain Scar, nemesis to the title character with a bitter envy and evil ambition and later an increasingly isolated mania. His mask is positioned above his head but with a simple movement quickly lowers to cover Scar’s face before raising up again to convey the character’s not so secret evil agenda. Mr. Vickery skillfully manipulates his facial expressions and his intricate costume to communicate Scar’s rage, cunning, and gradual loneliness making his character both comical and dangerous at the same time. And of course – there is that beautiful rich deep voice!

Following the show, we had the rare privilege to meet John Vickery for a few minutes. He is an intelligent, well-spoken and most gracious man who still seems surprised that fans know his name. He spoke warmly of his time on “Babylon 5“; remembering the rush to film his final scene as Neroon and marveled at the improved computer graphics he noticed in a recent episode he happened upon. He captivated us with his genuinely charming demeanor and we will always value the memory of the time he took to talk with us after such a demanding performance as Scar.…

PlayRaid 97 — Trip Report

There were 3 of us in PlayRaid: Karen, Lisa, and Myself. We all spent tuesday night at my place. Remember sleepovers?

Waking up early wasn’t a problem… we hadn’t slept! We each put on our “PlayRaid” sweatshirt and headed for the metro. We left Washingto DC on the 8:15 am train.

After arriving in New York we made a beeline for 42nd st. A song fragment about 42nd st kept going through my head the whole time; I just wish I could’ve remembered the whole song. I discovered that pedestrian road crossing is a martial art. It wasn’t a very long walk. And the theater was only a half a block over. It was hard to miss. I just didn’t expect it to look so small. Karen and I kept looking at each other. “Are we really here? Were really here! We did it!”

We bought programs, I bought a ballcap (of course) and we proceeded into the theater. Unlike all the other people outside hanging about or in that awful line, we had TICKETS. WOOHOO! or… to quote Rafiki…

‘Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’

I didnt even notice the inside of the theater. (yes, I know.. shame on me.. yeahyeahyeah) We were directed to an elevator, and sent upstairs. The mezzanine level already had many people waiting to enter the theater. So we bought pins to put on our sweatshirts. HEY DISNEY… HOW ABOUT SOME PATCHES?

The doors finally opened, and we all flowed into the theater, where ushers directed us in an efficient way to the general area of our seats. We were in the nosebleed section, although, there was one row behind us.

Somewhere in here I should mention… I did not like the movie much, and I did not like the music from the movie. Good thing the play is not the movie. It is most emphatically NOT the movie.

The calling started, the drumming, the lights dimmed — dont ask me in what order.. I have no idea. The music from the play is… well …positively metabolic, with rythms straight out of my childhood in Brasil. Oh. And those toys. Those wonderful toys! By the time the giraffes strode out I was already wiping away tears. When the elephant climbed up to the stage and into our field of view, Karen grabbed my arm just as I grabbed hers. Fergit the JV… I want to meet the person who made all those beautiful toys! Huh? Oh right. Finish the report.

I could go down the list of actors and say how good each one was. They *were* all good. You have to watch them all the whole time. I didn’t quite manage to do that. The ones to really watch though are Zazu and Rafiki — they are usually up to something. Oh yeah, and if you see a dancer who looks like he just witnessed the birth of his first child or something, that is Lebo M, who helped write the wonderful music.

And Scarr? Ledicious. I believe that Janis of MCEB (http://www.io.com/~cortese/mceb/np.html) may have mentioned in passing that John Vickery has a rather pleasant voice. Its true, he does. (talk about understatement) Samuel E. Wright (Mufasa) has a fascinating voice as well. (its not James Earl Jones’ voice, but no one can be compared to him.)

Of all the toys, my favorite were the hyenas. They not as graceful as the cheetas, or as moving as the giraffes and the elephants, but I could not keep my eyes off them. I kept looking for the human.. “there has to be one in there somewhere”. The masks and the movements of the puppets looked so… inhuman. A great effect. The Lions wore masks above their heads, rather than puppets like the other characters. The lionesses’s masks were regal, as was Mufasa’s. Scar’s mask was wonderfully evil.

Then came the ghost of Mufasa. My mouth hung open. All thought fled my mind. They sculpted with light. I felt like a child, staring in wonder. They sculpted with light.

The play was over all too soon. We sat a while, partially waiting for the crowd to thin, partially just trying to recover. We discussed how to describe the play to someone who hasn’t seen it. (Lisa’s method: “Just tell them to go” — which is precicely what I did in my review) We all bought soundtracks on the way out.

We did not wait at the side door — turning into a blithering idiot is not my idea of fun. (no comments from the peanut gallery please) We made a beeline back to the train station. I want to know why they waited till the last minute to tell us what track the train would be on. We survived the stampede, but it would have been nice to be able to sleep on the way back.

I had never been to a broadway play before. I will probably never get to go to another. Lion King was a good choice for my first trip to NY and broadway, it added a good deal of magic to a day that already had more than a touch of magic in it.