If you want to forget the worries of the pandemic and other evils of the world, at least for a few hours, the musical “The Lion King” is for you.
As soon as the lights in the house go out and the puppet animals – elephants, rhinos, etc. – parade down the center aisles, it feels like the return of old friends and we’re transported straight to the African savannah as Disney’s hit movie comes to theatrical life in typically awe-inspiring fashion. With its inventive direction, costumes, special effects and dancing (choreographed by former Detroiter Gawain Garth Fagan), “The Lion King” (through Feb. 20 at the Detroit Opera) did not aged at all since its debut 25 years ago. , and its history as old as time is welcome and heartwarming – a two and a half hour spirit of “Hakuna Matata”.
The musical hasn’t won six Tony Awards and many more around the world for no reason. It’s as thrilling now as it was in 1997 to watch the actors manipulate the puppets and large-scale vehicles that represent the creators’ assortment of “The Lion King,” or to capture the more subtle effects, such only scenes in miniature silhouette or foliage staged by the actors. The sets, from Pride Rock to the gorge where Mufasa (Aaron Nelson) is killed by his brother Scar (Spencer Pachy) during a wildebeest stampede – barely a spoiler all these years later – offer immersive eye candy .
And musically, presentations of Elton John/Tim Rice songs such as “The Circle of Life”, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Shadowland” (the latter featuring Kayla Cyphers in the role of Nala) resonate with lyrical pop-grandeur.
The visual splendor makes “The Lion King” somewhat bulletproof, but the current company’s performances — many of whom seem fit enough to fit into the NFL conference championships or the Olympics — certainly elevate the production. Gugwana Dlamini is an effervescent Rafiki, babbling with lightning speed and precise timing. Jurgen Hooper manipulates the Zazu puppet so well that you hardly see the actor when he is on stage. Nick Cordileone does much the same as wisguy meektrat Timon, while Ben Lipitz treats Pumbaa as if the warthog’s costume were his own body.
Other stage adaptations of Disney films have come and gone with varying degrees of success, but “The Lion King” has become a deserved mainstay in the theater world. Timeless and inspiring, it’s a generational work that will remain powerful for another 25 years, and likely beyond.
“The Lion King” runs through February 20 at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St. $15 and up. 313-237-7464 or broadwayindetroit.com.