By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A parade of near-life-sized puppet animals - including an elephant and a rhino - ramble down the aisles in the opening sequence of The Lion King, drawing spontaneous outbursts of applause from a delighted audience that doesn't know where to look first - the stilt-walking giraffes? The wheel of leaping antelope? The exotic birds that seem to flutter in from every corner of the main floor of Procter & Gamble Hall?
It's a grand beginning for this first-rate touring production where the star is jaw-dropping design.
The Lion King has been ruling Broadway for five years and it will have a mighty roar in Cincinnati, playing a record 69 performances at the Aronoff Center.
Broadway - and Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati - really has never seen anything like it.
The bare bones of the musical is nothing much, a sort of Bambi meets the Bard (equal parts Hamlet and Richard III), spiced with plenty of sass and pop culture references and set to a mostly so-so score.
The best music isn't from the Disney animated film but the African chants by Lebo M and Tsidii Le Loka, with Fredi Walker-Browne holding the stage as the song leader, accompanied by drummers in the boxes on either side of the stage. It's just one example of the total environment created by director/designer Julie Taymor.
The Lion King triumphs by adapting ancient forms of theater - puppetry, masks and movement (including the wonderful choreography of the great Garth Fagan) - to tell its story. The comic sidekicks (and there are many) take a variety of ever-surprising puppet forms, and the actors portraying them are uniformly delightful.
An expansion of the movie, the stage musical is the story of Simba, heir apparent to the Pridelands. His father Mufasa (powerfully played by Alton Fitzgerald White) is done in by Mufasa's ambitious brother Scar (the deliciously nasty Patrick Page).
Simba, tricked into believing he's responsible for his father's death, runs off and takes up with a wiseacre meerkat and big-hearted warthog, grows up, finds love, and returns to finally face off with his wicked uncle.
If you occasionally find your attention wandering from the plot, there's never a moment when you won't be riveted by the scenery.
The Lion King, through May 18,
Aronoff Center for the Arts, 241-7469.
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