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May 19, 2009

REVIEW: Disney's The Lion King @ Mandalay Bay

Posted by Hunter

We sent Mr. Mike_Ch over to Mandalay Bay to see the new production of Disney's The Lion King.

He came back with a mighty helpful and dare I say insightful review.

Enjoy after the jump!

Since it's announcement, excitement for the Lion King has been struck with a certain undercurrent of doubt. Broadway musicals have been hit or miss in Vegas. Mama Mia was a success, shouldn't they have tried harder to keep it? A Disney musical?

Since there's doubt about the potential draw of The Lion King, here's a fun fact for you: As everyone knows, Disney today is a company based on intellectual properties and using those IPs in a number of different ways. And products that aren't IP-based soon become IPs in and of themselves: Walt Disney didn't base Pirates of the Caribbean on any particular movie, but decades later it became a film franchise that eclipsed the popularity of the ride (and eventually the ride itself was modified to include elements of the movie's universe.)

And out of all the IPs, the one that generates the most cash? The Lion King. Nope, not Toy Story (though profits from that IP was shared with Pixar), not Pirates, not even Mickey Mouse across many decades of being the company icon (go figure, the Vegas premiere last Friday shared the date with the 81st anniversary of Mickey's debut.)

For the remaining doubters, 10 year olds who saw the movie back in 1994 are around 25 now. The audience exists, but the challenge for this show is a lot of other factors, most notably the economy and pricing a new show in a period when even the most solid performers are doing heavy discounting.

Now, as for the show itself, Lion King is a beautiful but somewhat lengthy retelling of the movie in live action. Dialogue is often an exact duplicate of the film script, though at my show a gag or two had been changed to be more timely or relevant. Since you know the script is frequently a word by word retell of the movie, it seems almost pointless to detail the plot. Chances are, you are familiar with it, and you are aware that since before the movie permiered parents were concerned that the story is too dark for children, but they seemed to eat it up anyway. There's some minor adjustments, though, the best one being that Rafiki the sage-like baboon was changed to a female and made even more eccentric than the cartoon character she's based on. Used sparingly through the show, she's a comic relief for the adults, as Timon and Pumbaa are for children.

For the most part, though, the cast is heavily working on the foundation of the established franchise.Timon and Pumbaa sound alike to the variety of voices who have played those characters in the film, on the TV and home video spinoffs, at amusement parks, and in video games. Scar sounds appropriately Jeremy Irons-like. The biggest exception is Mufasa; Alton White plays a convincing father figure for his part, but nobody could blame him (or anyone else who has been given this role) for not booming like James Earl Jones. Everyone sings the songs you expect them to and several songs not from the film were added to the musical score. These songs didn't quite do it for me, with the excpetion of "He Lives in You." I saw a conductor and assumed the orchestra was invisible, though I was sitting off to the far right of the theatre. Some percussion instruments are placed along the left and right side of the orchestra section for effect and the now common pre show entertainment, and sometimes puppeteers show up there to swing bird puppets on sticks through the air and add to the atmosphere.

The stage itself is often a mixture of costumes and puppets. The adult lion actor, in addition to the African-inspired wardrobe, wear (for males) a vest with a spine along the back that extends up to a mask of their lion's face seemingly floating over their head, or (for females) a lionface literally on their headgear. This may seem odd at first, but as soon as onoe of the males leans over forwards (usually for combat or to intimidate) and the mask lowers in front of their faces it becomes more dramatic and understood. Cub versions of Simba and Nala are performed by children who are swapped every few shows. The performance I went to had Elijah Johnson and Ruby Crawford as young Simba and Nala, respectively, and though I am sometimes a curmudgeon about child actors on stage their bubbly enthusiasm made me smile.

Though the lions don't look much like lions at first glance, they become accepted as stand-ins for their characters, while other characters are more cartoony. Zazu the bird is literally a puppet of a cartoon bird, attached to an actor dressed in a manner that seems very familiar to Las Vegas showgoers (with his makeup and bowler hat, some would be excused for thinking Zazu escaped from 'O' down the street.) The chief hyenas have rubber faces held in the actors hands (the actor's head representing their humped backs), and Timon is literally a man in green (disguised as foilage, I suppose) controlling a puppet that looks just like the animated character. Characters themselves sometimes show up as actors, and then moments later are represented with a miniature puppet of their character (usually controlled by a few actors in nondescript safari gear.)

If this all puppetry and live action mixup sounds confusing or a bit too childish, it somehow works for the theatre fan and average showgoer alike. Lion King won plenty of awards during it's original run, and this format has been popular enough that it has been adapted to other Disney musicals such as the Little Mermaid (starring a former Christine from the Venetian's Phantom production), and despite skepticism (can high-brow Broadway style presentation work with the middle class?) even has been adapted to the theme parks with the excellent Finding Nemo musical that packs 'em in at Disney World in Orlando. Less toony productions like Tarzan and Aida haven't fared as well.

This show does have some flaws, though. For one, it's quite long, at about 2.5 hours with an intermission at the 90 minute mark. Already at least one song has been cut for time ("The Morning Report," a song created for the film, which was cut, and later re-added for the DVD release a few years ago.) With several numbers that are not on the film score, I feel if one of those numbers (though not "He Lives in You") and one of any number of scenes that don't seem to contribute to the greater story (perhaps Timon's near-death experience on the waterfall, which seems to be there for comedy and little else) were cut in the future that the show would be a better sit for Vegas audiences. It should be noted that people around me in the crowd at the intermission were looking forward to the rest of the show and were upbeat, but the crowd around me was press and (according to Steve Freiss, who was also there) MGM-Mirage employees. As someone who dislikes the "get em back to the tables" mentality and doesn't like to see cuts to the original vision, I have to acknowledge that Vegas visitors have a bit of trouble paying attention to one thing for so long when there's so many things to do, and many of them require reserved times. After two hours, even the audience is starting to look forward to the next thing.

Overall I liked this show, though given that I'm a Disney buff I sort of expected to. I'd put it in the top five shows in town for most visitors (see reccomendations below.) Personally, I would put it in my top three with KA and Phantom, though having not seen the latter since some major cast shakeups and having seen a less than great performance of the former a few years ago I'm not sure how they would be numbered. I believe that if carefully trimmed down to 2 hours it will have legs in this town.

To quote the slogan from a large MGM Grand truck that I frequently see on the Strip, "It's a jungle out there. See the King." I just advise you to schedule a large block of time for him if you do.

Reccomended for:
* Fans of musicals (obviously)
* Fans of Disney (ditto)
* Twentysomethings who fondly remember the cartoon
* Couples / Romantic NIght Out
* Locals who have missed this show while it toured elsewhere
* Families on the weekend (look for an afternoon matinee on Saturday)

Not reccomended for:
* The antithesis of the fans above.
* Sin City party hounds, and other people who are looking for the most stereotypical Vegas entertainment, should know there's little risque about this show.
* Visitors whose itineraries are packed already as it is. You REALLY should get dinner reservations for before this show, not after, unless you're going to the afternoon show or have called ahead and made sure everything checks out.
* People who can't sit through films that are longer than two hours (though with popular blockbuster films these days going three hours, such as The Dark Knight or the Pirates sequels, this seems to be a shrinking group.)
* Chuckmonster


Read archived comments (2 so far)
May 20, 2009 8:36 PM Posted by detroit1051

Wow! Thoroughly great review, Mike. You mentioned the conductor and assumed the orchestra was invisible. Was it live music?
You were at an MGM employee audience. I wonder whether some typical tourists will sneak out at intermission. I have to admit my attention span is shorter when I'm in Vegas.
Thanks for the information.

May 29, 2009 1:29 PM Posted by Jay

As a member of the orchestra at the Lion King, I can assure you that the music is live. Including the percussionists that you see in the house, there are 23 of us. It is the same orchestration that you would hear in the New York production, though on a better sound system.