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Splendor in the Grass 

A visually stunning Lion King transforms the Fox into Big Cat Country

Nearly six years after its Broadway opening, The Lion King, the most talked-about -- and in many ways, the most innovative -- musical in recent memory, has sneaked into St. Louis. (Oh, you hadn't heard?)

Among the many wonders that The Lion King so regally dispenses, perhaps the most wondrous is this: It renders the vast Fox Theatre stage intimate. This ritualistic musical, which for the next two months is transforming the Fox into a grassy African savanna, is so resplendent with lumbering elephants, swirling birds, stately giraffes, stampeding wildebeests and wisecracking warthogs that the usually-cavernous stage can barely contain such an abundance of color and movement.

It was exactly one decade ago when the lion's share of summer movie business was devoured -- not by Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies or Harrison Ford in Clear and Present Danger, not even by Forrest Gump -- but rather by Simba, the feline protagonist of Disney's fable about life and death in the wild kingdom. The animated film had such box-office paws that as the summer progressed, newspaper ads added the tag line, "If you've only seen it once, you haven't seen it all." What was a gratuitous sales tool for the movie is literal fact for the stage version.

Now that the show is finally here, two key questions merit asking.

First, how does this touring company compare with the acclaimed Broadway original? Answer: Very well indeed. This is not a cut-down road show like the recent 42nd Street. The scenic elements -- even the optical illusions -- that are so critical to The Lion King's impact, are on display in all their sumptuous glory. The same is true of the cast. There are 48 performers on Broadway; there are 48 performers here. And while not all the principal actors compare favorably with their New York counterparts, enough do (most notably Dan Donohue as the duplicitous Uncle Scar and Alan Mingo Jr., whose portrayal of Simba invigorates Act 2) to not feel shortchanged.

The second question is more nuanced. Does The Lion King warrant the mountains of hype it has engendered? The answer is a decisive yes -- and no.

Yes, because it is an unparalleled triumph of imagination realized, an artistic collaboration that channels dance, mime, puppetry and masks into accessible form. Yet let it also be noted that at two hours 40 minutes, the evening's impact is diluted. Especially in Act 1, plot points are repeated over and over. Twice wasn't enough? Fine, they'll tell you a third time. One wonders who all this needless chatter is aimed at. The kids in the audience are way ahead of the story, and the adults don't need it.

Another drag: Although some intriguing new incidental music and African chanting enhances the mood, once you get past a couple of the well-known Elton John-Tim Rice hits from the movie, many of the new songs (including new offerings by John and Rice) are forgettable and unnecessary.

Anyone attending this show would be well advised to ignore the hype that has preceded it. Not an easy task, that. But once you enter the Fox, try to leave expectation behind, and instead focus on what's here. The Lion King is not flawless, but it does deliver sequences of inspiration. During those moments when the musical is soaring -- soaring through the air, through the aisles, ultimately through the viewer's dazzled mind -- this production provides an indelible theater experience that occasionally even allows viewers to feel the humbling thrill of being a part of the circle of life.

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January 19, 2022

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