While I approached the show as a hopeful skeptic (I've never seen the 1994 animated film from which the smash musical springs, nor do I really want to), I was truly gobsmacked by the scale and inventiveness of originating director Julie Taymor's vision.
Forget the somewhat bland pop songs by Elton John, who was better in his duck-suit days, and Tim Rice -- The Lion King works best as a piece of 3-D visual art.
Taymor, who created the 1997 production on Broadway, also designed the costumes and, with Michael Curry, the many wondrous masks and puppets. (There are over 200 puppets in this production.)
The fiendishly talented Taymor brings an artist's vision to the proceedings, elevating what could have been schlocky. Because, let's face it: even someone like me, more or less unfamiliar with the story, could see exactly where it was heading.
Taymor is that rare bird who can pull together the commercial, the avant-garde and the global in her work, resulting in a spectacle that really does work for everyone, from kids who've seen the Disney film a bajillion times to adult audiences. It held my attention, and that of a rapt little girl in front of me who was probably no older than 5.
From its very first moments, the production seizes you. As a huge sun rises on the African savannah, giraffes stride onto the stage in their graceful-yet-gawky way and fog rolls off the stage (is there really fog on the savannah?). Then, down the aisles of the 2,251-seat hall, come pouring all manner of animals, including a 13-foot-long elephant.
The clear, cutting voice of South African actress Phindile Mkhize as Rafiki rings through the hall. She sings the signature chant "Nants' Ingonyama" (by Hans Zimmer and Lebo M), which is more memorable than most of the Elton John music.
That opening number launches the audience on a 3-hour ride that includes motorized scenery (including huge Pride Rock, where the lions can look out majestically), special effects, and puppets that draw on numerous world traditions, from shadow puppets to Japanese bunraku.
Given the brilliance of the design elements, it's sometimes easy to lose sight of -- or at least undervalue -- the cast. However, in addition to Mkhize, Tony Freeman as Zazu the hornbill, Brent Harris as the villainous lion Scar, and the actors playing a trio of sinister hyenas (Andrea Jones, Omari Tau and Ben Roseberry) stood out for me.
I also liked the meerkat-and-warthog duo of Timon and Pumbaa, lion cub Simba's sweetly bumbling friends, played by Tyler Murree and Ben Lipitz. I did find it a bit distracting, though, that the Timon and Pumbaa puppets don't really fit the aesthetic of the others. They hew closely to the Disney animated characters, while everything else is more abstracted. But Murree and Lipitz are deft puppeteers and likable performers.
There are a few overused special effects -- namely strobe lights and blasts of "steam" -- and I found the lyrics in some of the songs, especially large-group numbers, hard to understand. I'm not sure if that was the result of the sound mix or the performers themselves.
But those quibbles are more (way more) than made up for by the sheer spectacle and imaginative design of The Lion King. Yes, it's excessive at times, but in a way that is genuinely impressive. It's the sort of production that takes full advantage of the scale of Overture Hall, with birds swooping in the air and giraffes bowing forward to practically kiss audience members in the first few rows.
In the end, my guess is that families who've splurged on a night out will feel it was worth it. There are moments of stunning visual beauty. As they say, 50 million Elvis fans can't be wrong -- and there's a reason this show has become the global juggernaut that it is.