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Review: ‘The Lion King’ at the Hippodrome Theatre

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The Lion King is epic. It is so full of throat-tightening spectacle and aural splendor that Baltimore’s grand Hippodrome Theatre can appear at times like a modest host. With Julie Taymor’s magical African beasts streaming down its aisles and the box seats over the stage alive with percussionists, there’s simply no room left for a mind to wander.

Dashaun Young as “Simba. Photo by Joan Marcus.

This is an evening of truly memorable theater, infused with the delights of folklore and fraught with universal drama and kid-friendly laughs — all delivered to us again by a dream cast.

Happy 20th anniversary to you, Lion King. Everyone will be ecstatic to know you’re back.

It’s hard to believe the original Disney film was breaking new animation ground only as recently as 1994. It seems to have been part of the world’s cultural heritage for eons. Three years later it was adapted to the Broadway stage by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi. It supplemented the songs of Elton John and Tim Rice (and the underscoring work of Hans Zimmer) with authentic African rhythms and the choral stylings by Lebo M and others.

If you have not seen the show before you will be surprised at the volume of world music here. Even the Disney-rific Elton John hits “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” have had their lush, American pop simplicity tethered to a more sophisticated musical palette of chants, dialects and a polyrhythmic élan vital.

The show proudly trumpets its spiritual ties with South Africa, and the 50-member stage cast always includes a contingent of South African performers from Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Act two opens with a stirring and colorful Zulu tribal dance guaranteed to make you feel surrounded by rondavels and cattle pens.

The story is as old as the oral tradition itself. It’s the tale of a young lion cub named Simba, who regrets defying the orders of his father, King Mufasa, monarch of all the Pride Lands. As a consequence the king dies and Simba’s guilt is manipulated by a jealous uncle, Scar, into a self-imposed exile until he finds his way back to his rightful place in the Circle of Life.

The messages of the story run counter to so much of what we hear from today’s celebrity culture. Assume responsibility for your own deeds, it says. Even Uncle Scar observes at the outset, “Life isn’t fair.” But do not wallow in guilt or regret. Accept you owe a debt to the community that raised you. … Wow, that.

Buyi Zama as Rafiki. Photo by Joan Marcus.

On a related note: Where on Earth do the producers find these marvelous kid performers? Young Simba (Joziyah Jean-Felix, alternating with Ramon Reed) and Young Nala (Danielle W. Jalade, alternating with Gloria Manning) prove agile, joyous guides who coax us — in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” — to see the world again through the innocent eyes of childhood.

The show’s other highlights begin with that curtain-raising procession of animals in the “Circle of Life,” here combined with the indigenous incantation of “Nants’ Ingonyama.” It is wonderfully delivered by Buyi Zama as the shaman-mandrill Rafiki, who raises goosebumps again with her reprise of “He Lives in You.”

Gerald Ramsey makes a commanding father as King Mufasa, and Kimber Sprawl is a very appealing and mature Sarabi. Mark Campbell may break no fresh ground as the villainous Scar, but he gets the menace and all that homicidal envy just right.

The film’s many wacky comical characters are in good hands too. Greg Jackson’s hilarious puppetry and intonations as Zazu, the king’s “major dumbbell,” are perfection in feathers and wild eyes.

Those two lovable wastrels, Timon and Pumbaa, make a ticklish pair of savanna nannies for Simba, thanks to show veterans Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz, respectively. They turn the comical “Hakuna Matata” into a sort of national anthem for under-achievers.

Slightly more menacing in their slapstick appeal are the trio of hyena henchmen, Shenzi, Banzai and Ed — manipulated and voiced by Martina Sykes, Keith Bennett and Robbie Swift.

The balletic spin of Choreographer Garth Fagan provides all those colorful costumes and stage pictures a gloriously kinetic grace.

Thanks to Scenic Designer Richard Hudson, Simba’s odyssey takes us to such unknown places as an elephant burial ground and that faraway realm the hyenas call home. The night’s standout stage illusion by Director Julie Taymor and her team remains the “impossible” stampede by a herd of wildebeests.

Long before that, though, The Lion King will have you with its tear-jerking opening procession by those the kings of the jungle. A live-action movie version is in the works, but it will have to reach a very high bar to surpass the achievement of this Broadway treasure.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

The Lion King plays through December 10, 2017 at the Hippodrome Theatre, France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore. For tickets, call 800-982-ARTS or purchase them online.

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