Jelani Remy stars as Simba in "The Lion King."
Jelani Remy stars as Simba in "The Lion King." (Photo: Joan Marcus)

"The Lion King" roars triumphantly into Milwaukee Theatre

Take a story about good and evil – about growing into an adult, about counting on your friends, about having hope when all seems lost – toss in a veritable zoo of exotic animals and some wonderful music, and it sounds like a train bound for glory.

That’s the tale of "The Lion King" that opened a 30-performance run at the Milwaukee Theatre, a tale that has played to sold out crowds for almost 15 years on Broadway. And it’s easy to tell why.

I feel safe in saying that I have never seen such a magnificent spectacle on any stage anywhere in Milwaukee.

The musical is based on the 1994 Disney movie and features music by Elton John and Tim Rice as part of the score. The songs "Circle of Life" and "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" both enjoyed significant airtime as hot singles throughout the world.

The story is a simple one, as most great stories are.

Mufasa is the lion king, ruler of Pride Rock. His brother, Scar, longs for the throne, but Mufasa’s son Simba is in the way. Mufasa is killed in a stampede of wildebeest, and Scar convinces Simba he was responsible for the death of his father and that he should run away.

He does, and Scar takes the throne, aided and abetted by a pack of laughing, evil hyena. Simba eventually grows into a man and returns to battle Scar and take his rightful place as the Lion King as the curtain comes down.

This is truly a story about fathers and sons and the line of judgement, behavior and love that runs through them both. People have called "Wicked" a musical about mothers and daughters, so it’s fitting that men get their chance with this show.

There is so much to this musical that is rich and holds a wide open appeal that makes you wish you lived in New York and could see theater like this all the time.

It’s hard to know where to begin explaining what takes place on the stage.

The musical is a visual feast that washes over you from the opening beat of the African drums. The pageantry is consuming, with dozens of African wild animals brought to life by real-sized puppets operated by humans using poles, wheels and masks that don’t cover their faces but which clearly tell what animal you are seeing.  

The set designed by Richard Hudson, the lighting designed by Donald Holder and the choreography by Garth Fagan stamp this production as a Broadway caliber national tour.

Special accolades must also go to Julie Taymor who directed the show, designed the costumes, co-designed the masks and puppets and wrote additional lyrics. She is undoubtedly the most talented woman Milwaukee has never heard about.

"The Lion King" is the opening show in the Broadway Across America series at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. The show was moved to the Milwaukee Theatre which has almost double the capacity of Uihlein Hall.

The move may allow for more tickets to be sold, but it also underscores the sorrowful misuse of the Milwaukee Theatre. It is a glorious space for an audience and a modern and dramatic backstage that allows for the most massive productions. I’m not sure a show of the complexity of "The Lion King" could be staged at Uihlein Hall.

The performance Thursday night just reinforced my belief that somebody sometime has to hire a top-flight booking agent and go out and get shows for this space. Two years ago, they presented a version of "A Chorus Line" from a third-rate company that was an embarrassment for Milwaukee. Currently, the theater is operated like a hall you can rent. There needs to be aggressive booking to continue the flourish of activity that is going to be spawned by "The Lion King."

This production is such an experience that it would be a shame if you missed it. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to introduce children to the magical world of live theater.

"The Lion King" runs through Dec. 7 and tickets and information are available here.

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