“The Lion King,” the highest grossing theater production ever, returned to the place where it premiered in 1997 before going to Broadway.
The tour production that opened Thursday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis is pretty much the same as the other three monthlong tours that played there in 2005, 2007 and 2012.
Sure, it’s quieter in the first act, owing perhaps to technicians trying to figure out the right sound mix. But the genius of director and puppet-maker Julie Taymor is all there in the inventive characters, from elephants and lions to buzzards and hyenas.
The show finds its pitch and proper volume by the second act, which includes an athletic performance by Aaron Nelson as the mature Simba as well as a moving reprise of “He Lives in You,” which also features the funny-but-wise medicine woman Rafiki (Buyi Zama).
Although based on Disney’s 1994 animated feature of the same name, “The Lion King” was always “Hamlet” transposed among the animals of the African savanna. Sour royal usurper Scar (Patrick R. Brown) has his magnetic and kindly brother, Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey), killed so that he can inherit the throne.
When Scar becomes king over rightful heir Simba, who is banished, Scar includes hyenas in his court. Hard times follow.
After growing in exile into a chiseled powerhouse, Simba returns home to reclaim what is rightfully his.
Taymor’s imaginative work remains the hallmark of this production. The wildebeest stampede, the Circle of Life pageant, the magic of Pride Rock are all there in this well-oiled juggernaut.
The number of times that I’ve seen “The Lion King” is in the double digits now. And yet it continues to be enthralling, even if this version ranks in the middle of the list of U.S. tours and Broadway performances. Some of the roles that were originated by different actors have lost some of their dimensions here.
Brown, who plays Scar, for example, has the snide aspect of this character down pat. The scheming uncle has a lot of double entendres, and Brown delivers them well. But he lacks the meanness of previous Scars. And because this character is not as a sharply drawn, his comeuppance lands with a whimper instead of a bang.
That’s at least how someone who’s a professional theatergoer sees it. My 13-year-old companion, Adisa, beamed throughout the show, which she has seen before. Part of her joy comes from seeing it with new eyes. She can appreciate the artistry of “Lion King” on a whole new level. She, like scores of youngsters with their parents and grandparents at Thursday’s performance, can continue to grow with the show as they get dressed up for a stately evening at the theater.
And that’s the real gift of “The Lion King.” It is a cultural phenomenon that continues to ring up box office records and conquer new markets (a Mandarin version just opened in Shanghai) precisely because no matter the little things, it’s a royal winner.
And that, as Rafiki might say, is worth ululating about.