Lion King, Hansel & Gretel excel in music, staging and dancing

December 1, 2008

This week, a return visit to "The Lion King" and a Sendak-ed "Hansel and Gretel"


If you saw the national tour of "The Lion King" the last time it came to and you're wondering how it looks a few years down the road, you can rest assured that the touring company isn't the worse for wear. In fact, the Broadway blockbuster is holding up very, very well.

For starters, there's that joyful opening sequence, where audience members are overwhelmed with a parade of costume, movement and scenic design wonders — all of it linked naturally and beautifully by director/designer Julie Taymor to Garth Fagan's not-given-enough-credit choreography, Donald Holder's expert lighting and Richard Hudson's stage design. It was and still is a gutsy choice to open so strong, with the show firing on all cylinders, and it would be unfair to expect the rest of the show to be as brilliant.

Still, much of what follows is jaw-dropping. Among my favorites: the moment at the end of "Endless Night" when the ensemble suddenly bursts in after Simba's ballad with a riot of color and energy. Theater doesn't get much better.

In transferring the animated film to the stage, some of the added material works and some doesn't. The hyena bits are interminable and grate even more on repeat viewing (this is my third time at the pridelands). The new song, "The Morning Report," for wiseguy bird Zazu is unsatisfying filler. And make what you will of the truly bizarre costumes in the "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" number. (Wait, is that woman an asparagus?)

On the other hand, much of the rest of the new music works well. It's still easy to give all of the credit to Elton John and Tim Rice for such catchy songs as "I Just Can't Wait to be King" and "Hakuna Matata," but much of the additional music for the show was written by others. This includes Lebo M's haunting chants for the lionesses, Tsidii Le Loka's attention-must-be-paid chants for Rafiki, and the not-a-dry-eye songs "He Lives in You"/"They Live in You" by Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Lebo M and "Endless Night" by Lebo M, Hans Zimmer and Jay Rifkin. The latter two numbers help give moving, if familiar, motivation for Simba's action — and inaction.

"The Lion King" is still a show where the personalities of the actors are overshadowed by the design and directing. Chances are, even the most hard-core theater lovers couldn't name an actor on the previous visit. Still, this time around, credit should be given to Chaz Marcus Fleming and Ah-Niyah Neal who are bright and bold and totally charming as the young Simba and Nala. And Phindile Mkhize as the endlessly watchable Rafiki. And to the no-weak-link rest of the company that seems to be continuing to give the show that passion and commitment it needs.

It still makes you want to spend some time hanging out with a meerkat and a warthog.

In short, if you are going to "The Lion King" for the first or the fifth time, you've got nothing to matata about.


Visuals, too, helped power Indianapolis Opera's production of Englebert Humperdinck's "Hansel & Gretel." That's not to take away from the music — well played by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra under the baton of James Caraher.

The sets and costumes were designed by Maurice Sendak, who is best known for his books "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the Night Kitchen." But the look of this "H&G" is closer to his less familiar "We are all in the Dumps with Jack and Guy," in which childish wonder is painted with a primer of sadness.

Just as Sendak didn't compromise because he was primarily reaching children, IO's production -- its first of the piece since 1999 -- never treats this kids' story as lesser work. Marnie Breckenridge and cross-dressed Kristen Gunlogson fared well as the titular sister and brother. Victor Benedetti created a believable, vocally strong Father. And Elizabeth Byrne performed double duty as the stern mother and the not-stereotypically-witchy Witch.

The opera's best moments came when all of the elements of design, performance, direction and music harmonized, creating a world of both danger and safety. At the end of the first act, lost in the woods and with other silent children around them (spirits of other missing kids? The homeless?), the siblings pray before lying down to sleep. A Sandman enters. Angels surround them.

And it becomes possible to get through the night, even in a deep, dark wood.

Here's hoping the sets for this production don't stay in mothballs for as long this time.

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