Honky Cats

The Lion King is big. Real big. Even people who never think about musical theater can feel its mass, its undeniable gravity — it's like the Broadway equivalent of a black hole, rumbling down from New York to envelop the Broward Performing Arts Center and rip thousands of human beings out of the suburbs and into the theater with the power of its inescapable suckage.

Yessiree, The Lion King is no ordinary show, and here's some evidence: Usually, when I'm making small talk in line at Stork's or Whole Foods and I tell people I make my living as a theater critic, they say: "Oh! That's interesting. Seen any good plays lately?" In the past two months, nobody's asked that. Instead, people have asked: "Wow! Have you seen The Lion King?" Total strangers have asked me this question no fewer than four times since the beginning of April, and I've had to say "no" in every instance.

But man, to be asked about it four times by total strangers. That's weird. There is obviously something special about Tim Rice and Elton John's 10-year-old Disney Afrotacular, and whether it's good, bad, or ugly, it's probably worth knowing about. So, last weekend — the second-to-last weekend before this production ups and moves along to hypnotize some other city — I went and had a look.

My first mistake was giving up our seats in Row M, a comfy 40 or 50 feet from the stage, to a man whose little girl was unhappy with her own front-row seat. She was afraid of the animals, she said, and it was hard to argue with her logic. This little girl had seen the movie, and she knew as well as anybody: Don't fuck with a hungry hyena.

We were not afraid, but we should have been. Not because of the hyenas but because of the sound — the mix in the front row bordered on criminal. At first, I thought I was hearing an incompetent orchestra or singers who were dog-tired after five weeks of Broadway bestiality. Not so. These problems were technical. There was a perceptible lag between the noises coming from the pit, the percussionists mounted on balconies above the stage, and the singers' mouths, and it created the impression that every song was constantly on the verge of slipping into arrhythmic confusion. Those lovely, high-pitched, synth-flute swoops during "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" sounded awkward; the key change in "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" felt labored; the seething pull-push rhythm of "Be Prepared" was reduced to sludge.

I blame these problems on our seats, but there were other troubles. Throughout the performance last Friday night, all the midrange instrumental sounds blended into a thick sonic goo, and the voices of individual singers vanished whenever they entered their lower registers. The first time this occurred was on the 14th English word of the very first song, "The Circle of Life." That word is sun, and while singing it, actress Phindile Mkhize (Rafiki) disappeared. It was terrible. Mkhize is an extraordinary singer who sounds like a cross between Joseph Shabalala and Chaka Kahn, and she can click like an army of Miriam Makebas. When a voice like hers is MIA, you know there's a bug or three in the system. It's not long before other characters experienced a similar fate: Timothy Carter's dark, exquisitely feline "Scar"; Malcolm-Ali Davis' charming, bright-voiced "Young Simba." One moment, they're blowing minds, and the next moment, they're gone. Blame the machines.

It's hard to believe these troubles have cropped up only now, after five weeks of perfection. And it's certain that the show's second-biggest sonic problem — its sadly underpowered orchestra, which evokes none of the celebratory grandeur of Elton's score — has been with it from the beginning.

So why do people keep frothing at the mouth? What is there to love about The Lion King?

The visuals? Maybe. Everybody talks about the visuals. The magically choreographed puppetry of massive giraffes and elephants, the herds of antelope, the woman whose gentle manipulation of a big wooden cheetah is something very like poetry — this is all very beautiful.

But visuals are just visuals, and I can't believe they're enough to pack 2,688 seats eight times a week for six weeks. Eventually, I've gotta come to the somewhat depressing conclusion that folks keep coming because they or their kids dig the story, which goes something like this:

In the African savannah, a land called Pride Rock is run by a bunch of lightly complected, almost-blond carnivores and their king, Mufasa. These carnivores eat creatures like antelope and zebra. Still, when Mufasa has a son, the antelope and zebra gather together and bow to him. Stratified class structures work well in Pride Rock. Even the food is happy.

Meanwhile, in a bad part of town, there lives a bunch of violent, stupid, darkly complected scavengers. They hate the big, blond carnivores of Pride Rock, who won't allow these disenfranchised scavengers into their happy neighborhood. This all changes when Mufasa's brother, Scar, arranges Mufasa's death, assumes leadership, and forces Pride Rock to integrate. In come the violent darkies. Whoops, there goes the neighborhood.

Simba, the rightful heir to the throne, runs away. He meets some beautiful people with a live-and-let-live philosophy, gives up red meat, and generally goofs off. Eventually — in the most visually and emotionally thrilling moment of the show — Simba meets the ghost of Mufasa, who was a member of a different generation with very different priorities. This was a great generation, maybe the greatest generation, and now Daddy's pissed. Hearing his father's recriminations, Simba is shamed away from his bohemian lifestyle. He hightails it back to Pride Rock, kicks Scar's ass, chases the darkly complected savages back to the ghetto, and peace and happiness reign once more (except in the ghetto, where, one may assume, pregnant hyenas not yet out of high school smoke crack and swill malt liquor by the 40).

Should we read anything into this? Is Scar actually Lyndon B. Johnson? Are Timon the Meerkat and Pumbaa the Warthog running a hippie commune? Do people keep attending The Lion King because they subconsciously hope that such entertainments will imprint their children with a yearning for the halcyon days of the '50's? Do you care? Do I?

Probably not. Screw it. Hakuna matata.

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Brandon K. Thorp