Review: Adding my roar to ‘The Lion King’ crowd

Review: Adding my roar to ‘The Lion King’ crowd
Gerald Ramsey as Disney's Mufasa in "The Lion King" at Overture Center. "The Lion King" runs through June 5: Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 p.m.

When referring to the Overture Center for the next three and a half weeks one can honestly say “it’s a jungle in there.” The good news is that the natives—Madisonians, that is—are not restless, but based on the full house Thursday night, they are primed for the return of the Broadway/Disney favorite, “The Lion King.”

And in some cases (my hand is raised), they are finally getting around to experiencing it on stage for the first time.

I had seen the original animated movie version back in the day, and had heard that the stage version just really had to be seen to be believed. Now I can join that chorus.

It really isn’t about the music in terms of individual songs; oh sure, there are a couple of tunes that quickly (and happily) get stuck in the head. And it isn’t about the story, even though it is easy to root for the good characters and hiss the bad, and there are regular doses of healthy laughs to be had.

What “The Lion King” experience becomes, from the opening minutes, is an immersion into a world that is visual fantasy brought so vividly to life that alternates from feeling a part of the action to observing, with mouth always slightly agape, at the unique panoply of puppetry, costume, dance and sheer life of it all.

The catalyst of the show is the integration of animal heads/parts/entire costumes with the human actors who portray the jungle characters. Nick Cordelione as the meerkat Timon will stay in the forefront of memory a long time; it was easy to forget for stretches at a time that the animal figure had the human voice (and propulsion) right behind the amazingly animated creature. Even the lion heads of Mufasa the good king, and his evil brother, Scar, would be dropped with incisive precision by Gerald Ramsey and Patrick R. Brown, respectively. Though we were most often focused on their speaking, there was still a consistent and marvelous melding of their animal accoutrements.

Brown deserves special mention as possibly the most compelling actor of the cast; of course, it’s often easier to root harder against a great villain than pull for the good guys, but Brown has an array of wonderful inflections and spot-on timing.

Aaron Nelson gives a solid turn as the older Simba, but it is the young Simba (B.J. Covington) who nearly steals the show in a single act.

If most of the songs fail to thoroughly capture the memory, it is the music overall that becomes nearly a character on its own. Part of the fascination is hearing passages in no fewer than six African languages—and while there are never translations offered, one finds that they are really not needed. One thinks back to the opening of Act II, with dozens of “bird/kites” on long thin wires that are brought on stage and down the aisles, with the growing ensemble building to one of those great a cappella choruses that makes the blood race. We also must give credit to percussionists Nicola Cannizzaro and Reuven Weizberg; perched offstage in the lower boxes, they dazzled with an array of percussion that either drove the orchestra or led their own stretches of irresistible rhythms.

So there you have it. You probably already know it’s a family-friendly show—and it’ll do the trick for an AARP member who just takes a while to get around to things sometimes. “The Lion King” runs through June 5: Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 p.m.