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.…