A dazzling puppet-filled spectacle hits the Hippodrome

The Lion King

At the Hippodrome Theatre through Jan. 8, 2012

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Within moments, The Lion King sucks you into another world. The Hippodrome falls away as a new landscape takes form. Rams sing from on high, elephants stomp down the aisles, and birds swoop through the theater. The experience is engulfing, and the magnitude likely to enthrall even jaded grownups.

Luckily, the touring production of the Broadway hit continues to allow original director Julie Taymor to shine in her area of expertise: storytelling using a variety of puppetry methods. Japanese Bunraku puppets coexist with dancing shadows; rod puppets interact with costume puppets. Despite the differences in style, it all comes together quite fluidly. Take the moment one recent evening, for instance, when a tiny shadow of a mouse scampered across the stage. Unwittingly, the little silhouette came upon a waiting lion, who—somehow—lunged a paw at the flat form and managed to pull a furry, three-dimensional little rodent out of what had been a shadow. Many in the audience gasped in wonder, and it’s that sense of awe that lies at the heart of The Lion King’s appeal.

The story, if you haven’t seen the Disney film on which the musical is based, concerns a little lion cub with daddy issues who has to grow up fast and confront his murderous uncle. If you’re not familiar with the plot, just know that it’s vaguely like Hamlet with anthropomorphized animals, though really, you don’t need to know too much about the narrative. This show is more about spectacle than story.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the production is its ability to confidently let seams show. The human form is fully incorporated into the puppets and sets, and while you know there are people making everything move, the magic is in how easily you can ignore it. Sure, there’s clearly a guy covered in green body paint operating Timon the meerkat, but as it’s all unfolding, your eyes are focused on the puppet alone. And yes, that is definitely a group of people wearing grass-topped hats swaying around, but in that moment you only see lions frolicking through the plains.

The sets and puppets are phenomenal, and the ingenuity behind them alone is reason enough to see the show. Blades of grass march across the stage, creating a sense of movement. Large, cartoon-like palms spring forth as if blooming of their own accord. Actors, dressed in grass-covered body suits, contort throughout the landscape, adjusting their movements to suit the scene. Bunraku cheetahs traipse about while herds of gazelles leap in long, graceful arcs. Just like the African plains, the stage is rich with life.

Despite the gasp-inducing Broadway trickery, many individual performances shine on their own. At the very start of the show, the mandrill Rafiki (Buyi Zama) steps onstage to sing the well-loved opening number (“Circle of Life”) and immediately commands attention from the crowd. Her voice is powerful, and every atom of her being seems poured into her character. Throughout, she is altogether funny, mysterious, and wise. And Zazu (Mark David Kaplan) is, in some respects, split in two: human and bird. Kaplan, dressed to the nines in tails and a bowler hat, is tethered to the little hornbill. He controls the puppet with skill, adding subtle flares and gestures to make the character come to life, but he adds further depth with his own facial expressions and body language.

The show is fantastic for older children; there’s much to take in and many of the songs are catchy and fun. But at two and a half hours, it’s not entirely tot-friendly. At a recent performance one youngun’ got just a little bit screamy halfway through the second act; you’ll want to take that into account if you’re planning on making it a family outing. The show also feels padded in certain parts. Songs like “Shadowland” and “Endless Night” are unmemorable, and drag down an otherwise lively and spirited production.

With its second stop in Baltimore since 2005, The Lion King will linger for five weeks before shipping out again. If you’ve had any desire to see it for yourself, now’s your chance to check it out without trekking up to New York. The Hippodrome is a wonderful place to see it too: grand enough for a Broadway show but small enough to feel truly immersed in the performance.

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