Director and designer Julie Taymor will always have "The Lion King."
Taymor's musical masterwork, which has already grossed over $4.3 billion globally, opened Friday in a return to the Orpheum Theatre stage where it premiered in 1997 before moving to New York.
By now one might expect "Lion King," now in its fourth Twin Cities engagement, to show signs of road-weariness. Yet from biggest to its tiniest moments -- from its opening parade of human-and-puppet fauna in a "Circle of Life" through the reprise of the spiritual and reverential "He Lives in You" at the end -- the must-see show remains fresh and inviting.
"Lion King" is a restoration tale elegantly told by a winsome performing company on the plains of Africa (Richard Hudson did the lovely scenic design that Donald Holder evocatively lit). Pride rock ruler Mufasa (regal Dionne Randolph) dies by the hand of his scheming and jealous brother, Scar (wry and witty scowler J. Anthony Crane), who asks his hyena henchmen to kill Mufasa's son and heir, Simba.
But Simba escapes. He grows up away from danger by palling around with scaredy-meerkat (Nick Cordileone, well-timed) and gassy warthog Pumbaa (Jonathan Weir). After he comes of age, Simba (Jelani Remy) returns to the plains to confront Scar and reclaim his father's realm.
Taymor's vision for the show works seamlessly with Garth Fagan's gorgeous, Tony-winning choreography (I especially loved seeing the grass dance again) and with the character-descriptive music by Elton John and Tim Rice. The composers have made Mufasa's numbers beautifully melodic, while Scar's songs are discordant and jangling -- dramatic distinctions that conductor Rick Snyder brought to sharp life.
That there is still much to admire in the stagecraft of "Lion King" speaks to the enduring creativity of Taymor, who designed the masks and costumes for the show and who recently took some critical lumps for "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the problem-plagued last project from which she was dismissed.
In "Lion King," adapted from the Disney animated movie, Taymor expertly blended global performing arts styles, including African masks and Asian shadow puppetry. And she did it with the highest integrity. Her honorable treatment of medicine woman Rafiki (the outstanding Ntom'Khona Dlamini), a rotund character who speaks with clicks, is rare.
Such demonstrated respect makes it easy to flow with the ethnically identified hyena dimwits Shenzi, Benzai and Ed (Monica Patton, Omari Tau and Ben Roseberry).
Still, as a stage landmark, "Lion King" is a ripe target for potshots. "Hakuna Matata," the show's simplistic "Don't Worry, Be Happy"-style reggae anthem that is delivered sweetly by Timon, Pumbaa and Simba, is the subject of a withering, profane send-up in "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway.
Even that knock is a tribute to "Lion King," a show that jauntily asks: "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" After Friday's performance, the answer is a clear yes.
Rohan Preston 612-673-4390