Michael Bergeron
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Welcome to the Jungle: “The Lion King”

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There are two sides to the current touring version of the musical play The Lion King. On one hand, the theatrical experience overwhelms the viewer with expert staging, sets and choreography. Yet on the other hand, the play offers proof of the dominance of corporate synergy using the Disney brand.

The Lion King started out as an animated movie, then morphed into a hit Broadway musical, currently on tour and stopping in Houston this month, and will be re-imagined as a computer animated feature film helmed by The Jungle Book director Jon Favreau where the animals will still be cute but photo realistic. Disney also used this template most recently for Beauty and the Beast.

The best example of Disney cosmology occurs in this stage production of The Lion King when one character belts out a couple of lines of the award winning song “Let it Go” from Frozen. It’s a happy coexistence of intellectual properties where the pieces of the puzzle are interchangeable.

Many of the songs were written specifically for the musical as well as taken from the stand-alone CD soundtrack-sequel Rhythm of the Pride Lands. As one character quips, “That wasn’t in the cartoon.”

Perhaps not oddly the most celebrated songs from the movie, “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” are the least interesting in terms of staging and overall impact. The opening medley of “Circle of Life” and “Nants’ Ingonyama” literally blasts forth with performers on stage and in the top boxes lining the auditorium while down the aisles march actors operating puppets of animals from elephants to antelopes. The costume design as well as the stage direction are courtesy of Julie Taymor’s original staging. To date, The Lion King is the top grossing musical of all time.

The sequences I found most brilliantly realized were segue ways between jungle and night scenes under the stars near the end. The stage, and by extension the auditorium, become a canopy of starlight against a blackened sky. Then foliage descends and different hues of jungle light flood the stage. Another clever scenic effect has Timon and the infectiously cute yet nonchalant Meer cat hanging on the edge of a waterfall high above the stage floor.

The songs are not the average legit stage warbling’s but full of Mbube styled vocal runs and inflections. Many of the visual gags are aimed solidly at kids.

The Lion King continues its run at the Sarofim Hall at Hobby Center until July 23.