Now Melbourne can discover for itself what all the fuss was about. The Lion King is here, and it is all we have been promised: big, heart-warming, at times stunningly beautiful, with music that makes your heart race and puppetry to make you gasp. Best of all, it takes us right out of the realm of a well-known film into richly rewarding theatricality.
Africa is constantly evoked with pride and job. Don't, whatever you do, be late for the opening.
The thrilling voice of Buyisile Zama, as Rafiki, calls up the magic and all the animalshe savanna, who make their way through the theatre onto the stage for the presentation of Simba, the lion club, who will be their king. This opening is justifiably described as the most wonderful in theatre history.
The incorporation of Zuzu song into pop music works extremely powerfully, creating deeper and more exotic emotional resonances. These crucially link Simba's folk-tale story of the young hero who must pass through trials to earn his place at the head of his tribe with the 'circle of life' belief system that the story embodies.
The story itself is simply and familiar. But it is its unique presentation, the ebbing and flowing of visual and aural climaxes, the overlay of street-smart humour, then the demonstration of performance and design ingenuity, that continually fascinates. We seem programmed to be unable to resist animals that talk and act like humans. The Lion King's animals do more than that. They are dual identity creatures, with visible operators who reveal the complexity of the belief/disbelief, the real/imaginative dualities that entertain us.
Take the villain-with-attitude, Scar (performed with cynical relish by Tony Harvey). One moment he is the plausible liar with serious discontents, a psychological case study in frustrated ambition, and the next, with a flick that brings down his lion mask, a jungle killer with murderous intent.
Surely there has never been a chorus as fascinating as the veldt animals that take to the stage with dignity and joy. The cheetah, the giraffes, the rhinocerous, elephant, buzzards, gazells and ostriches, move in and out of extraordinarily realistic body manifestations, each with its visible human operator. Garth Fagan's choreography has skilfully worked recognisable animal movements into a vocabulary that is al the more effective for its simplicity. Donald Holden's lighting design evokes the breadth and colour of Africa itself.
On the whole, it is the big, full-staged numbers that keep up the show's emotional temperature, although fine performances from the leads ensure that our sympathies are appropriately aroused, particularly at the death of Mufasa (a noble, full-voiced Geno Segers). The trickiest part of the story -- Simba's growth into an alienated teenage lion and his reluctance to adopt his destiny -- is nicely handled with lots of comedy from John Xintarelonis as the flatulence-challenged warthog Pumbaa and Jamie McGregor as Timon, the meerkat with the smarts.
Trickiest of all is the awakening sexuality scene between Simba (Turanga Merito) and Nala (Jennlee Shallow), the one point where a mainly symbolic eroticism wobbled into kitsch. Given Disney's cross-over audience of adults and children, sex is always going to be a difficult area to theatricalise.
The design concept, largely the work of director Julie Taymor, is made more complex by its layering of references, and remarkably successful combination of traditional cartoon depictions and beautifully rendered African evocations of cultural authenticity. This succeeds partly because of the casting of so many African performers.
In The Lion King, Taymor has succeeded in returning musical theatre to its human, as opposed to technological, roots. It is a big show in one of Melbourne's biggest theatres, yet its real power lies in the space it gives to our imaginations. We are transported by its dazzling colour and soulful music, and fascinated by its transparently human ingenuity. There should be no problems in filling the Regent for its projected nine-month season.