The Lion King was daring when it came out 22 years ago. The story of regicide, revenge and coming of age was nothing new, but it was Disney's first Africa-inspired story. The colors were more vibrant, the music less familiar, and it featured a black voice actor in a role more prominent and positive than any Disney flick before.
In the Broadway adaptation, the wildlife is just as bright and exotic, and the songs are pulled straight from the film. The Lion King stage production never fully separates itself from the experience of watching the movie in a theater as a 6-year-old. It doesn't really want to.
The play opens the same as the movie: the sun rising over the desert as animals from all across the savannah come to serenade the new king with "The Circle of Life." From birds that fly like kites at the end of a fishing line, to the two-person elephants stomping down the orchestra-level aisles, to the cheetah licking her paws—it's all really impressive stuff. Mufasa, Simba, Zazu and the more involved characters have anthropomorphic costumes to allow for greater range of motion and acting, even if it looks weird seeing Mufasa dual-wield scimitars when he takes on the hyenas. Also, Scar looks like a rejected skin for Nightmare in Soulcalibur for some reason.
The show is faithful enough to its source material that it gives you a feeling of déjà vu throughout—so much so that the added scenes and songs feel jarringly out of place. A little padding is a necessity when adapting an 89-minute film into a Broadway play, but so much of the play is dedicated to remaking the sound, look and feel of the film that scenes like Simba breaking down from PTSD while Timon is being attacked by a crocodile undercut that experience. But Scar telling Zazu to never sing "Let It Go" again does draw the biggest laugh.
The Lion King on Broadway won the Tony Award for Best Musical when it debuted in 1997 for good reasons. A few years ago, it surpassed The Phantom of the Opera as the top grossing musical (or film) in box office history. On stage in Portland, the show accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. Maybe Pumbaa was more than just a fart joke in the film, and maybe Scar was less of a wheezing gasbag. But this is The Lion King alright. Hakuna matata.
See it: The Lion King is at Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 503-241-1802. 7:30 pm Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturday, 1 and 6:30 pm Sunday, through Sept. 4. $30-$150.