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The Lion King

There is arguably no sight in theatre that’s more spectacular than the opening of “The Lion King,” with birds, giraffes, elephants, rhinos and other animals assembling to honor the birth of the future king, Simba. The production design, colors, costumes and energy of the scene are heightened by Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Circle of Life,” which slowly builds to a crescendo that’ll bring a smile to your face and goose bumps to your arm.

The rest of the show, which is now playing on the Broadway Across America tour, is a continued tour-de-force of lavish production values and visual splendor. The story, however, is another matter altogether. The heart and emotional sweetness of Disney’s 1994 film is ominously lost in the garish spectacle that is this production.

The basics remain the same: Deep in the heart of Africa, lion cub Simba is convinced by his Uncle Scar that he is responsible for the death of his father, King Mufasa, and flees Pride Rock vowing to never return. Scar takes over and, with the help of the hyenas, ruins the land yet wonders why people don’t respect him. Meanwhile, Simba grows up in the forest and makes friends with Timon, a meerkat, and Pumbaa, a warthog. It’s not until Simba’s childhood friend Nala happens upon him one day that Simba realizes his true calling and returns to Pride Rock to claim his throne.

It’s a telling sign that the book by Roger Allers (who also co-directed the movie) and Irene Mecchi has stretched the story way too thin when the performance begins at 8 p.m. and Act Two doesn’t start until 9.45 p.m.; the entire movie — songs, heartbreak, betrayal and all, was only 90 minutes. All the Disney songs are here and very well done, including “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which gets a bit sappy but remains aesthetically beautiful, Scar’s “Be Prepared,” Timon and Pumbaa’s “Hakuna Matada” and the aforementioned “Circle of Life”/“Nants’ Ingonyama” (the opening lyrics of the show). The only exception to this is Young Simba’s “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” which doesn’t have the enthusiasm or earnestness needed to make it truly resonate.

What fills the extra hour of the show are original songs by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and composer Hans Zimmer. The works of Lebo M. are the beautiful tribal dances that are quite breathtaking, but they also leave you to wonder about their relevance to the central story (in short, there is none).

With a story that struggles it’s difficult for the actors to truly shine, but Timothy Carter gives an admirably devious performance as Scar, with an eloquent singing voice to match. Otherwise, most of the acting prowess is hidden under layers of costumes and makeup, although the adult Nala (Chauntee Schuler) has a beautiful voice and John Plumpis and Ben Lipitz (as Timon and Pumbaa, respectively) are just as funny and touching as their cartoon predecessors.

“The Lion King” won six Tony Awards in 1998, including best new musical and best director of a musical for the very talented Julie Taymor (who also won for her costume design). Perhaps not surprisingly, the other wins were for technical awards, including scenic design, choreography and lighting design, all of which are well deserved and are very ably recreated.

But just like in any other narrative medium, it is the story that must come first when evaluating the work’s overall quality. And because the story lacks the heart of the film and at times makes the production feel like an overlong, exasperating experience, the show as a whole suffers.

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