‘The Lion King’ is a beautiful production that delivers to its audience the pure magic of theater

And off he goes, into the air. Jumping. Dancing. Swirling and prancing. Rocking his mane back and forth. Behind him, a clapping chorus dressed in colorful African tribal gear sings: “Into the water, into the truth, in your reflection … he lives in you.”

At the moment when adult Simba realizes his role — who he is and what he must do — The Lion King delivers to its audience the pure magic of theater.

Before that inspiring reprise late in the second act, the audience is simply treated to almost two hours of choreography that astonishes, puppetry that enlivens and singing that soars. Up to that point, the show is entertaining enough and light-hearted to a passable degree. It is reminiscent of the animated movie upon which the Broadway musical is based.

But then Simba decides to leave his peaceful and lazy life in the jungle to go back to the now barren land he is destined to reign.

It’s when The Lion King, the stage show, surpasses The Lion King, the 1994 film.

They said it couldn’t be done.

It was said that actors can’t use puppets and masks to bring life to the Pride Lands — a world ruled by lions only before seen in a Disney cartoon. They said it wouldn’t be believable.

Well, they were wrong.

2nd time’s a charm for Disney

The show, now in its fifth year, won the Tony Award for Best Musical after opening in November 1997.

Last February, rehearsals began for the first national tour, which kicked off in Denver and opened in Tampa on Dec. 13. It is showing at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center downtown through Jan. 26.

The Lion King is Disney’s second stage musical adapted from one of its films. The first was Beauty and the Beast. But where that stage show comes across as live-action actors pretending to be cartoons, The Lion King goes in a different direction.

The characters are animals, yes, but at times they become human.

When Mufasa tells Simba he was worried during the stampede, he is being a dad. He takes off the mask, which is harnessed on his head and neck, and sets it down to have a conversation with his son.

The masks also play a vital role in the show — they tell a large part of the story. At times, the masks and the actors’ body movements are all the audience members are given to suspend their disbelief that these are animals talking to one another in the jungle.

The puppetry and dance form a marriage of beautiful storytelling, intertwined with elements of “poor theater.” When Timon, a human-size puppet of a meerkat attached to an actor in green paint, needs a resting place, he finds it in a large patch of grass, provided by half-dozen ballet dancers crouched over and holding up large green spikes. The illusion allows the audience to only see the brown rodent lying on the grass.

From the screen to the stage

A good portion of the show is based on illusions, doused with shadows and simple imagery.

Chase sequences begin with lighting small animal cutouts that morph into live-action running. At one point, a spotlight is on Scar, and as he walks downstage, the shadow grows and he thinks it’s Mufasa come back from the dead.

It’s tough to transfer animation to live-action, but the challenges are met with precision here. However, not all of the translations run smoothly.

In the cartoon, young Simba and young Nala ride ostriches through the savannah as they sing, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” But, when two child actors are asked to control the reins of large puppets upon which they are sitting during a live musical number, it’s a bit taxing on them. Running around the stage, young Simba (played alternately by Akil I. LuQman and Rydell Rollins) is as lively as can be. But during the song, when he’s supposed to be energetic, the ostrich prop takes away his ability to be upbeat.

Zazu the hornbill is self-aware. While he looks the most out of place because the puppet is the smallest in show and thus preventing the puppet master/actor from escaping in the background, at least the ploy works when he has to narrate to the audience. He says at one point, “Wait a minute, this wasn’t in the film.” Another time, he references The Weakest Link.

In an amusing sequence, Zazu tries to cheer up Scar by singing a song. In the movie, “It’s a Small World, After All” was used. But in this production, Zazu sings “Be Our Guest,” which is met with disgust by Scar. Whether it is intentional, the in-joke is Patrick Page, the actor who plays Scar, also played Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway.

A difference of characterization

The characterization of Scar is similar to Jeremy Irons’ lead from the animated movie. When Page performs “Be Prepared,” it’s a testament to how sometimes one doesn’t mess with perfection.

Rafiki, on the other hand, is changed almost wholly. From the gender change to alteration of sentimentality, the only underlying similarity to Robert Guillaume’s original voicing is the genuine silliness exercised by the actor, Fredi Walker-Browne. What was baboon gibberish is now playful Swahili. Her voice also sounds instrumental, and she’s able to transition into chants and guttural screams seamlessly.

Perhaps the best representation comes from the hyenas, whose costumes — made up primarily of gray sweats — are accentuated perfectly with large masks that match the animated characters upon which they are based.

They also provide the only real comic relief of the first half, before those duties are taken over by the fart-joke-laden duo of Timon and Pumbaa, who take bodily fluid gags to a less-subtle degree than the movie allowed.

But when the humor passes, the audience is still left with not only a great story with substance, but stunning choreography, which is on display in the final battle sequence between the hyenas and the lionesses. The scene comprises an operatic yet chaotic dance that pits almost two dozen actors on the stage going at it. Not since the Sharks and the Jets went to war in West Side Story has theater fighting been so beautiful.

But as complex as the show can be at times, it opts for a classier exit that doesn’t boast its elaborate production design as much as other big-budget musicals have. When Simba takes over, a minimal usage of lighting and music are used to change darkness back into light.

It’s a final curtain that’s quite apropos for an otherwise garish animated musical translated beautifully to the stage.

Contact Will Albritton at oraclewill@yahoo.com