Disney’s The Lion King

Durham Performing Arts Center
Through Jan. 30

Director Julie Taymor is a frequent name in the entertainment news these days with her $65 million Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark being Broadway’s most expensive and potentially life-threatening musical.

The sheer scale of the projectand its oddball depiction of a classic comic book superhero in a mythology-based story with songs by U2’s Bono and The Edgeholds an uncommon allure for the public. Sure, it looks spectacular, but it also looks like it could be nonsense, and the sheer number of actor injuries gives it the morbidly fascinating quality of “When’s someone going to die?”

All this makes Taymor’s biggest hit, The Lion King, more fascinating. The production at the Durham Performing Arts Center is the must-see for families, but it also contains a certain appeal for those who haven’t been able to make it to the Great White Way to see Taymor’s work live. For those who only know her for such films as Frida, Across the Universe and The Tempest, how does her sense for artistic spectacle play on stage?

Taymor has two grand strengths to her style: an encyclopedic knowledge of mythological and cultural tradition, and an awareness of what will play to a broad audience. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was so taken by seeing The Lion King on Broadway that he wrote a scene for his series Sports Night where a character dreads seeing the show but then is so blown away that she gives a monologue raving about the opening number, “The Circle of Life.” Many viewers thought this was a paid product placement, but it was in fact a free, and unintentional, shill.

Sorkin’s enthusiasm is understandable. “The Circle of Life” puts the showstopper right at the very beginning, with the stage growing more and more crowded with costumed humans and puppeteers, and still more appearing in balconies and heading down the aisles. At several points in the show, I was more concerned whether the stage could support the sheer number of players than whether the young cub Simba (Dusan Brown and Jerome Stephens Jr. as a child, Adam Jacobs as an adult) would ever realize his destiny.

Taymor is also aware that the story for the original film (which, let’s face it, knocked off the Japanese cartoon Kimba the White Lion and any number of classic myth structures) is familiar to the audience, so she has just enough freedom to enhance certain elements, playing up the African roots of the music and costumes.

The wise monkey Rafiki is here changed to a woman (Ntomb’Khona Dlamini at the performance I attended) covered in makeup and tribal ware, while the adult lions are indicated by large headdresses (the evil Scar, played a nicely hammy note by J. Anthony Crane, has his lion mask just above his gold-painted face with a device that allows it to lean in front of his head whenever he crouches, lion-style). It’s classic pantomime, with the songs made deeper, darker and longer (and with a collection of new numbers that are mostly forgettable).

Ironically, the least successful parts of The Lion King are the bits that hew more closely to the filmthis version actually loses energy when wacky sidekicks Timon and Pumbaa (Nick Cordileone and Ben Lipitz) show up with designs that hew closely to Disney and their fart-and-Borscht Belt humor intact. They get laughs from the kids, but it lacks that visceral thrill that the numbers reimagining the movie provide.

After more than a decade, The Lion King still plays to a packed house and a standing ovation. Whether the same will be true for Spider-Man 10 years from now remains to be seen, but Taymor does unconsciously reveal a few secrets of storytelling with her Disney showwhen you combine broad appeal with eclectic imagery, you can get away with some very daring things on the stage.

Though perhaps it doesn’t hurt to have a farting warthog for the kids.