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- | - The Lion King - | - Mama Mia! - | -

Your comments and reviews are always welcome. Add them, now!

Stage Door Guest Review of
The Lion King
Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, May 2000 -- INDEFINITELY
Stage Door Guest Review by Mark-Andrew Lawrence, Front Row Centre
[Christopher Hoile's review follows.]

An extravaganza of colour, motion and imagination has taken over the stage (and aisles) of the Princess of Wales theatre with Julie Taymor's resplendent production of Disney's THE LION KING.

David and Ed Mirvish, together with Disney, have put together a first rate team of people, on stage, back-stage, and under the stage, to replicate the staging of the 1998 Tony award winning Broadway musical. The staging is, in fact , so spectacular that one can forgive, if not completely forget, the mediocre score.

It's not that the music is awful, certainly not as awful as some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's recent fiascoes, and the creators have found several effective ways to use African-styled chants as underscoring for the almost non-stop pageant of dance and movement. The score includes songs from the film by Elton John and Tim Rice, with additional music by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer. This score by committee does manage to give a unity of tone, but the key songs tend to take second place to the theatrics in one's memory.

The songs may be somewhat inhibited by the book which remains dogmatically simplistic. Authors Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi stubbornly refuse to dig beneath the surface of each character or add any shading to the battle between the good lion king and the evil Scar. There can be little doubt of the ultimate outcome, so we enjoy the ride safe in the knowledge that good will triumph. But with everything so clearly delineated, the musical's big moment - when the prodigal lion returns to claim his birthright - fails to inspire cheers.

There were, however, cheers aplenty for the talented cast. From the moment Phinda Mtya raises her powerful voice to lead the opening sequence, through to the final encore of "Circle of Life" the vocal resources are seemingly unlimited.

The ensemble numbers come across best although Sebastian Oliver Haines as Young Simba and Saskia Garel as Nala both displayed outstanding voices. The comic antics of Jonathan Wilson and Mark Terene (Timon & Pumba) were calculated crowd pleasers, and, conversely, Richard McMillan was properly menacing as the evil Scar, even if at the reviewed performance his voice was showing noticeable fatigue. No such problems for Eugene Clark as the proud Mufasa who sacrifices his life in the dramatic stampede. There is not a false moment in any of the performances for which partial credit must go to choreographer Garth Fagan and director Julie Taymor.

With this show, Taymor can rightfully claim her place amongst the theatre's top musical stagers. Visually, one magical effect follows another but constantly keeping true to the overall vision and the standard "black box" use of a stage. Movement is no longer just dance: Movement here is the key to the story and the blending of scenery and costume gives new meaning to both terms.

Although nothing in THE LION KING quite tops the dazzling opening parade to "The Circle of Life," there is still much to admire. As a piece of theatre it raises the "tingle" factor to new levels and the kids in the audience were spellbound. Did I say kids? I noted many adult members of the audience with eyes glistening at intermission. And that is what live theatre is all about!


THE LION KING; presented by David and Ed Mirvish in association with Disney theatricals. Music & Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice with additional music and lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer. Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi based adapted from the screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts & Linda Woolverton. Scenic design by Richard Hudson; Costumes by Julie Taymor; Lighting by Donald Holder; Mask and Puppet design by Julie Taymor & Michael Curry. Choreography by Garth Fagan. Directed by Julie Taymor. Opened April 25, 2000. Performances to June 10: Monday to Saturday @ 8 pm, matinees Wednesday & Saturday @ 2 pm. From June 13: Tuesday to Saturday @ 8 pm, matinees Wednesday, Satuday and Sunday @ 2 pm. Reviewed May 8, 2000.

Cast: Phinda Mtya (Rafiki); Eugene Clark (Mufasa); Topaz Hasfal (Sarabi); Jeffrey Kuhn (Zazu); Richard McMillan (Scar); Sebastian Oliver Haines/Ayaya Mengesha (Young Simba); Sarah Barrable-Tishauer/Georgina Johnson (Young Nala); Jonathan Wilson (Timon); Mark Terene (Pumba); Steven Allerick (Simba); Saskia Garel (Nala) with Carmen R. Floyd, Jason Lee Jackson, and Bill Perry. Orchestra conducted by Rick Fox.

Principal musical numbers: Circle of Life; The Morning Report; I Just Can't Wait to be King; Chow Down; They Live in You; Be Prepared; Hakuna Matata; One By One; The Madness of King Scar; Shadowland; Endless Night; Can You Feel the Love Tonight; Reprise: He Lives in You; King of Pride Rock/Circle of Life.

Original Broadway cast recording: Walt Disney Records 60802-7
Ø Recorded just prior to the musical's triumphant Broadway opening in November of 1997, this album preserves Broadway veteran Samuel E. Wright's powerful performance as Mufasa and Tsidii Le Loka's high powered Rafiki. The CD is well-produced, although a little dialogue might have placed some sort of story context to the songs. The packaging is somewhat disappointing: The booklet includes no notes, no synopsis, and the pictures are obscured by the reprints of the lyrics. * * *

© 2000 Front Row Centre

The Lion King
Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, May 9, 2000-April 1, 2001 -- INDEFINITELY
Stage Door guest review by Christopher Hoile

In 1998 The Lion King, the second of Disney's feature-length animated films to be made into a musical, won 6 Tonys in New York, including Best Musical, Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting, Best Choreography and for Julie Taymor both Best Costumes and Best Director. Many people were surprised at this year's Olivier Awards in London when The Lion King won only in the categories of Best Costumes and Best Choreography and not Best Musical. Having seen the show, it's clear the London critics got it right. While The Lion King visually is an extraordinary theatrical spectacle, it is not actually a very good musical. The plot is not engaging, the characters remain cartoonish, the dialogue is wooden and only two of the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are even memorable (though that is one more than in most megamusicals). I have never seen something called a "musical" before where the interest was so entirely visual. Julie Taymor has lavished more theatrical invention on this one show than one is likely to see in several seasons of theatre. Normally, the direction and design support the meaning of a theatre piece. Here, I found the experience quite bizarre, since the direction and design are infinitely more imaginative than the original material.

I should say that I was not very taken with the 1994 film. Many things I found irksome there are even more so in the theatre. According to the programme, Disney gave Julie Taymor a free hand in staging the musical. Therefore, she made the male the baboon, Rafiki, female "to redress the sex imbalance" and hired the South African musician Lebo M to "Africanize" the music by inserting real African chants and training the cast to carry them out. Yet, while Taymor is marvellous in dealing with design and movement, she seems uninterested in directing acting. If she really did have a "free hand", she has to be held responsible for retaining such annoying aspects of the film as the inconsistencies in accents ranging from Black South African to New York Jewish. For the two adult lion brothers, the "good" has an American accent, the "bad" one a British. And worst of all, the hyenas, the scavengers who don't know their place, have inner-city American Black accents and vocabulary. There is no good interpretation one can give this and it was widely criticized when the film came out. Her "Africanization" of the story only highlights these unpleasant carry-overs from the film.

The plot and dialogue are a good deal less entertaining than a children's Christmas panto. As for the cast, their acting and singing abilities are highly variable, though all had to master movement in complex costumes or puppetry or both. The most enjoyable performance is that of the South African Phinda Mtya as Rafiki, the baboon shaman. Hers is the only performance to give the show any heart. Both her chanting and speeches have a sense of joy and wonder about them that connect with Taymor's staging. One wished this feeling could have somehow spread to the other characters. Next Richard McMillan, as evil lion Scar. Besides the enigmatic Rafiki, his is the only interesting character in the piece, and he uses all his Stratford experience to make him into a kind of pseudo-Shakespearean villain. He also fully masters Scar's skulking walk and ominous gaze (aided by a gliding remote-controlled head above his own). Jason Lee Jackson, Carmen R. Floyd and Bill Perry as the three hyenas had more complicated puppetry to do than the other characters besides having to sing and dance. Despite the politically questionable accent they have to use, one has to admire their skill in mastering the complex movements Taymor had given them. Of the major characters, the only other consistent performance came from Saskia Garel as the older Nala the lioness. Her words, both spoken and sung, are clear, her acting good and her voice lovely. Mark Terene as Pumbaa the warthog is also enjoyable although his character has little to do but repeatedly complain of flatulence (yes, this is story's level of humour).

There are problem of one kind or another with the rest of the cast I saw. John Watkis, the understudy for Eugene Clark as Mufasa the Lion King, has great presence but does not have the diction required to bring off a sense of nobility. Rhett George, the understudy for Steven Allerick as Simba, has a nice singing voice but is very poor as an actor. Jeffrey Kuhn as Zazu, the king's "major-domo", speaks all his lines in the same strident, hyperactive way, which soon becomes tedious. In his one patter song, I couldn't understand a word. I found Jonathan Wilson, who has turned in many fine performances elsewhere, extremely annoying as Timon the meerkat, the other supposed comic relief, and way too over the top to be funny. The ensemble singers as a whole are very effective in the African chants, but when singing in English their words are seldom clear, thus minimizing further the already minimal effectiveness of the songs.

Given the variable performances, the infantile plot and dialogue and--except for Can You Feel the Love Tonight and Circle of Life--the lack of any memorable songs, it is left entirely to Taymor's staging to make the evening worthwhile. In this she is aided by Richard Hudson's imaginative set designs, Donald Holder's lighting, the wonderful masks made by Taymor and Michael Curry and Garth Fagan's inventive choreography. Indeed, the staging really is THE only reason to see the show. For anyone who has seen Taymor's work for the American Repertory Theatre (e.g., The King Stag), there are no real surprises except for the sheer scope of the production. For anyone who has not, there is nothing but surprise and delight. Her work is heavily influenced by the puppet theatres of Japan and Indonesia and by the use of masks in cultures ancient and modern.

For spectacle alone, very little can outdo the first ten minutes of the show when animals parade down the aisles of the theatre to pay homage to the Lion King's heir. Elephants, giraffes, a rhinoceros, antelope, flocks of birds make their way up to the stage. Taymor's secret, learned from Japanese bunraku, is always to have the puppet manipulator(s) visible to the audience. That is what creates the sense of play and stimulates our imagination to enjoy the suggestion and to fill it out at the same time. Thus, the giraffes are clearly men with moulded stilts for their hands and feet and a huge giraffe neck and head for a headdress. Whether a separate puppet is attached to an actor (Zazu and Timon), an animal costume partially covering an actor with parts to be manipulated (the hyenas and Pumbaa) or merely a headdress with an animal's likeness (Mufasa), the actor playing the part is always visible. Except for Rafiki, all the animals are represented in multiple ways, not just as I've described but also as shadow puppets or whole dolls carried about on poles. In bunraku, one very soon comes to ignore the manipulators entirely and focus on the puppet itself. Here, the varieties of representation prevent this and keep the focus on the actor/manipualtor.

Many scenes are theatrical tours de force: the wildebeest stampede that kills Mufasa, Rafiki's invocation of Mufasa's image inside her tree, the final battle between Scar and Simba by shadow puppets on a long screen held by people running. Taymor even has actors represent the grasses of the savannah and the foliage of the jungle in ways I've never seen before. Nothing, however, matches the excitement of those first ten minutes when it seems we are ushered into a new world--just before the clunk of the distinctly unmagical dialogue begins.

Most people who visit the theatre only rarely will not be bothered by the extreme gulf between the exuberant creativity of the staging and the total banality of the material staged. Frequent theatregoers will want to see The Lion King for the staging alone. However, if you go to this show thinking "musical", you are bound to be disappointed, since the work itself does not give the lift a real music- or dance-driven show can do. If you go thinking "spectacle" and ignore the plot, dialogue and most of the music, you should be happy since the experience is less like seeing a good story unfold and more like watching a long, beautiful parade.

© 2000 Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome. Add them, now!

 And speaking of other comments, here' s what YOU had to say...

Christpher Hollie....

Well this message is for you .. Regarding the show that you commented on .THE LION KING TORONTO , I was just wondering about the comments you said about the Mufasa and the Simba ., also the ZAZU. I felt these characters did great job.

I felt the Mufasa ( John Watkis)was great for being an understudy and he had the warm a father should have with his child. Also I felt the Simba( Rhett George) was great aswell and had i dont think that is acting was poor, rather more energetic and sincere, . Also ZAZU ( Jeffrey Kuhn)voice had alot of character and depth , In my opinion.

Sincerly Eric

Did he even go to see the musical? has he no idea what good music is? he's in need of a lot of therapy the plot was basic but good. it can be grasped by a wide range of people which makes it so great. Good reviews chris gives must include musicals that have plots that nobody can follow and the typical run-of-the mill music that you see in every other musical out there today! He has a blind eye for originality and is perhaps behind the times just a little. scincerely jo

  This was an amazing show in my opinion. I felt that all the preformers had so much energy and life, and they brought that out through their awesome dancing, beautiful voices, skilled acting and usage of the puppets. I can't think of one bad thing to say about it, I'm amazed that you came up with so many. The preformance was filled with different styles of music and dance, which all blended perfectly to give the final product. The facial expressions on the actors/actresses while working their puppets and displaying their characters blew me away. Not once did "Ed" relax from his hilarious bemused expression! The smiles and energy were a constant. I give my thanks to everyone involved in making the production for giving me the night of my life!

Stage Door Guest Review of
Mamma Mia!
Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, May 9, 2000-August 5, 2001 --INDEFINITELY
Stage Door Guest Review by Christopher Hoile

On May 9 the North American première of the hit West End musical Mamma Mia! opened at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. The record-breaking advance sales have already made it such a hit in Toronto that the Mirvishes have extended it past its former closing date in September to August 2001 and will send the present cast on a US tour. The show itself is so delightful, so clever and so well performed that it's bound to be a hit wherever it goes. After years of pretentious, doom-laden musicals that were anything but comic, it is a treat to see a musical that is what musicals originally were--a musical comedy.

As everyone knows by now, Mamma Mia! is built around 22 songs by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of the 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA. While writing the book after the music is the backwards way to write a musical, there is a history of such works from at least Wiener Blut (1899) to Kismet (1953) to Crazy for You (1993) that have been very successful. What is essential is a book so ingenious that the songs seem to arise from the situations, masking the fact that the situations have been devised to fit the songs. Just such a book is what Catherine Johnson has written. Johnson deftly sets up the whole plot of the show within the first 20 minutes. Donna Sheridan, a former member of a Seventies girl group, Donna and the Dynamos and a happily unwed mother, has been running a taverna on a Greek island where she has raised her daughter Sophie, now 20, who is planning to marry her boyfriend Sky in a big white wedding. Sophie has been reading her mother's diary and, given her mother's wayward past, realizes that there are three possible men who could be her father. Clearly more conservative than her mother, Sophie invites all three to the wedding hoping to find out who really is her father and to have him give her away at the wedding. Once the Donna's two "Dynamos" and three ex-boyfriends arrive, everything is set. What easily could have been merely a farce or situation comedy strangely enough turns into a comedy of character as the story moves forward primarily through a series of one-on-one encounters between the four women and four men. To add to the symmetry, Sophie has two girlfriends visit and there are two male attendants at the taverna.

The introduction of the ABBA songs are often greeted with laughter from the audience as if they were the punch line to a joke, and in many ways that is what is happening. Over and over we get involved in the confection of the plot only to realize it is leading to a song we already know. Johnson and the director appeal to an adult sense of play by constantly surprising us with new contexts for songs we already know. And Johnson provides a wide variety of contexts for the songs--as part of a diary, as a man quoting his ex-wife, as background music in a disco, as songs sung as songs, along with the conventional use of songs as private meditations or expressions of feeling toward other people. On their own, ABBA's most popular songs are almost entirely in the form of one person addressing another. What gives them a certain "generic" quality is that we don't know the context in which they are supposed to occur. Mamma Mia! actually enhances the songs by giving them a specific context, to the extent that if you listen to ABBA Gold CD after the musical, you can't avoid thinking of the context of the song as it appeared in the musical. The songs benefit from variety in another way by being sung not just by ABBA's two A's, Anni-Frid and Agnetha, but by eight different voices and a chorus.

The motto both for the book and for Phyllida Lloyd's superb direction could be "Knowing Me Knowing You." Like Johnson, Lloyd knows we know what the real set-up is between the story and the songs. Therefore, she brings this sense of our "knowing" into her direction. When Sophie and her friends sing "Honey Honey," it is portrayed as part of her mother's diary from the 1970s thus allowing the girls to make fun of such just-too-Seventies expressions as "love-machine." When Donna sings Money Money Money about running her taverna, she looks up in surprise when the people gathered there suddenly sing as the chorus. At other times, when a character supposedly sings a song alone, but which in the ABBA version has a chorus, Lloyd has a group of heads suddenly appear over a wall to sing along. All of this climaxes in the hilarious dream sequence that begins Act 2 where Lloyd both makes fun of and has fun with the very stage images she has already used such a dancing chorus of people in Day-Glo scuba gear. From then on, having established that she knows that we know, the show proceeds in a straight fashion. A wise choice, since by then we are caught up in the plot and actually do want to know who the father is and what will happen at the wedding.

Lloyd is helped by a very savvy design team. Mark Thompson's set mirrors the structure of the show by having two curved walls which in various orientations represent the outside or inside of the taverna or separate rooms inside. His costumes are also witty, from the Seventies revival clothes of the Sophie's generation, to the outrageous togs of Donna's two girlfriends to the ultra-Seventies rock singer gear for the fantasy concert that closes the show after the curtain call. Howard Harrison's lighting includes creating the illusion of a sun-drenched Greek island to cabaret lighting when Donna and the Dynamos perform, to black-light mirror-ball effects over the whole audience. While I enjoyed Anthony Van Laast's choreography, I did wish there was more of it and thought the show could have used at least one extended dance number.

The show has a very strong, energetic and likable cast. The most important role is that of Donna (and it's about time a middle-aged woman was the focus of a musical!). Canadian musical veteran Louise Pitre was superb. Eschewing ABBA's own glossy presentation, she uses the various moods of the songs build up an interesting character and makes the lesser-known Slipping Through My Fingers, a mother's reflection on her daughter growing up, the emotional centre of the whole show. Tina Maddigan, a Newfoundlander fresh from Sheridan College, looks and acts just right as the daughter Sophie. Her voice tends to be a bit thin on top and she could learn from Pitre in how to carry an emotion from one scene and use it to build on in the next. As Donna's two girlfriends, Gabrielle Jones and Mary Ellen Mahoney were a treat--Jones playing a feminist with convictions ready to be undermined and Mahoney a rich, jaded triple-divorcée. As Donna's three ex-boyfriends, David Mucci as the Australian and Lee MacDougall as the Brit did as much as they could to make their characters more than stereotypes, but I never could warm to Gary P. Lynch, an American playing the American. Trying to make his character so intense put him at odds with the general mood of the show. Adam Brazier as Sophie's boyfriend and Nicolas Dromard and Sal Scozzari as the taverna attendants all turned in good performances, especially the last two in their dance number with Mary Ellen Mahoney.

The last time I had so much fun at a large-scale musical was at Crazy for You, itself a pastiche, though in many ways Ken Ludwig's book for that show is much inferior to Johnson's book for this show. ABBA's songs obviously don't have subtlety of George Gershwin's music or the wit of Ira Gershwin's lyrics. But what both shows have in abundance--and so lacking in most big musicals nowadays--is one catchy, tuneful song after another. I think this may the explanation why, to my surprise, everyone over sixty leapt to their feet as eagerly as those younger to give a long-standing ovation. Here, finally, was a musical comedy that was actually both musical and a comedy and gave you a real lift just like the old ones used to do.

© 2000 Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome. Add them, now!

 And speaking of other comments, here' s what YOU had to say...

wow this musical was the best that i haev seen out of hit and joseph and cats and others. i mean i bought the cd and have been listening to it non sotp since i got back from the show today i wish i could do a musical like that its great i rate it total of 10 stars!

I just saw Mama Mia last night and still have a smile on my face! It was so wonderful to sit back and enjoy the show and leave with a great feeling about my friends, family and life in general! Hats off to the cast ...what energy!!!!! The encore itself was worth coming to see!


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