A year before the movie “The Lion King” came to theaters, Disney released the opening scene as the movie’s trailer. The animals congregate at the rock, the music pulses, the camera soars…it was one of the best trailers ever. Likewise, the Boston company of the Lion King stage show opens with a show-stopping number that highlights the stirring singing and astounding animal inventions. Of course, since it’s the opening number, there’s no show to be stopped, but it is a great beginning, which the first act pretty well sustains. As everyone who’s seen the show has said, the pure theatrics of the show – all hail Julie Taymor – are astonishing.
And then, after the intermission, the puppets take the stage. Pumba’s amusing, especially if you like fart jokes, but Timon is in the wrong movie. The nasal Borscht Belt shtick was tired in the movie, but on stage it’s irritating. Plus, perhaps because Timon is supposed to be small, he’s presented as a fully realized puppet operated by a man in green behind him; the other creatures magically integrate human and animal forms. But Timon looks just like he did in the movie, only 3-D. It’s like having one character in a movie be played by a live person on stage. It’s distracting.
The second not only drags – it’s a 3-hour play, so I’d say you get your money’s worth, except the tickets were outrageously expensive – it’s a lost opportunity. The new music by and large is forgettable, except for the pieces that are embarrassing, the most self-indulgent vein of Disney anthem rock. I thought the choreography was generally uninspired, although the show won an Astaire award for it, so I doubt my competency to judge.
If only this hadn’t been a Disney movie first! Then we’d have a stage musical that mixes Hamlet with Animal Farm. When Simba exiles himself, we could have a second act where he loses himself in hedonism, only to be restored to his better self by, well, something more interesting than the appearance of his old tumble-chum, Nala. But, because this is a Disney plot, the hedonism consists of nothing more salacious and soul-eroding than prancing around while singing “Hakunah Matata.” And the return to his sense of duty isn’t occasioned by him hitting the bottom – Does Simba rip the throat out of a gazelle he was playing dice with? Does he wake up one day with a hangover that tastes like Timon? – or by a nasty urge to avenge his father. No, Nala just shows up one day, preparing him for his encounter with Rafiki who tells him he just has to be the best Simba he can be.
From then on, all the interesting conflicts have been resolved. All that remains is theatrics – some leaping about and Scar dies as he must. There’s no doubt in the plot and no doubt in the characters.
In the last analysis, instead of getting Hamlet meets Animal Farm, we get Disney’s Hamlet on Ice.