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STAGE REVIEW

The mane attraction

Pride fills Opera House as 'Lion King' premieres

Can you feel the love tonight? You definitely could last night, as the official opening of "The Lion King" also served as the festive unveiling of the magnificent Opera House, bringing that end of Washington Street a level of excitement it hasn't seen since the 1960s.

In many ways this is a perfect marriage of place and product, the Baroque art, marble columns, and other symbols of bygone opulence framing the rich pageantry of Julie Taymor's ground-breaking adaptation of the Disney cartoon. As the humans dressed as beasts of the jungle proceed down the aisles of the refurbished house, it feels as if you couldn't ask for a better place to see theater.

And for a while it seems as if you couldn't see a better piece of theater. Taymor is so often identified by the phrase "avant-garde" that you'd think it's her middle name. That Disney sought her out in the first place was something of a shock, but when the show opened in New York in 1997 it turned out the company got a great deal. Taymor provided Disney with enough dazzling stagecraft to fill a season's worth of musicals, with masks, puppets, and all other assortment of multicultural bells and whistles filling New York's New Amsterdam Theatre in thrilling new ways.

Most of that remains in the touring production. The puppetry in particular is a marvel. Taymor does not try to hide the humans within the costumes of lions, birds, warthogs, and meerkats. Watching the humans manipulate the puppets or seeing the animal masks fall gently over the human faces is part of the great charm of the show. Mark Cameron Pow as the bird Zazu and John Plumpis as the meerkat Timon are particularly adept.

Who's Zazu? All right, for both of you who don't know the story, Simba is a lion cub who's the heir apparent to Mufasa, who is murdered by his evil brother Scar. Simba's uncle convinces him he was at fault. He flees Pride Rock and hooks up with a warthog, Pumbaa, and Timon the meerkat, who have become the latter-day equivalents of Porky Pig and Daffy Duck.

The actors manipulate their inner animal in a variety of ways. Ben Lipitz is enclosed in the purple warthog, Plumpis (aglow in green) stands behind Timon.

But for all the charm of the puppetry and beauty of the spectacle (which seems a tad less than it was in New York seven years ago), "The Lion King" is more for children than adults.

For all the freedom she was given, Taymor was still constricted by having to tell Disney's story. There is poetry in the idea of regeneration and conservation, which Taymor stresses more than Disney, but this is still basically a cartoon version of growth and identity compared to her work on American Repertory Theatre's "King Stag," a truly transformational work of art.

The world music that Taymor includes to flesh out the white bread tunes of Elton John and Tim Rice adds a level of sophistication to the proceedings, but Garth Fagan's choreography is hit or miss and Richard Hudson's sets aren't the eyefuls they should be.

Fortunately, there is enough integrity and intelligence and beauty in the enterprise to make "The Lion King" a special event. It isn't the perfect way to re-open the Opera House, but it certainly brings a roar to Washington Street.

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