06 November 2006

Lion King

What a great weekend this was. My sister, Julie, flew up from their home in Savannah, Georgia. On Sabbath we had a pre-Thanksgiving get-together with the Dittes side of the family. All my aunts and uncles were accounted for, as well as three of six cousins (I was missing Norman, Aaron, and freshman-in-academy Rachael, for the record).

On Sunday, we celebrated the other reason for Julie's trip to TN: the Lion King touring Broadway show at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville.

I have strong opinions about the Lion King movie, and I must admit that the musical wasn't high on my list of Broadway plays--I'm waiting to see Wicked and The Producers, among others. In many ways The Lion King ruined a string of classic Disney animated movies that had stretched from The Little Mermaid, through Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. One reason was the death of lyricist Alan Mencken. Another was that Disney invested in specatcle more than story: big-time rock star, Elton John, as composer, and gee-whiz graphics. But there wasn't a sould to the story. Once you got away from the cute songs and the Hamlet-based script, there was nothing timeless or magical like B&B. I left the theater after Lion King thinking, "that was cool." Conversely Beauty & the Beast had me thinking, "I could live in that world," just like a little kid.

The Lion King was coming, and my mom--who instilled her love of Broadway musicals into me as a kid--was determined to have the kids see it. Julie was coming, too. This production had puppets! Whew-hoo-de-doo.

So what happened? I loved it. There are about six new songs that bridge together the parts of the story that grown-up JD relates to. The character of Mustafa, something of a cypher in the movie, is brought out with the new song, "They Live in You," relating his hopes for Simba. It was the first song to really connect on a spiritual level, and it set up the incredible response that Simba sings with Raffiki, prior to the climax.

Jenny and Ellie's favorite addition came in the song, "Shadowlands," sung by adult Nala (Simba's love interest) as she leaves Pride Rock. Wonderful characterization. It really worked.

With that said, some of the parts I didn't like were holdovers from the cartoon. If you thought that "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" was one of the cheesiest moments on film in the 1990s (like I did), you'll want to cover your eyes (and those of your kids) as Simba and Nala sing it (see picture, right) with a PG-13 backdrop of ballet dancers in suggestive poses.

I guess the kids had been a big worry before we went there. The guy on Channel 4 recommended taking kids no younger than five, and we had Jonah (3) and Julie's two sons, (ages 4 and 2). I was so worried that Jonah would get bored, throw a fit, and cause us to waste a $70+ ticket. As it turned out, however, Jo-Jo made it through. (Julie's baby fell asleep during the first song and didn't wake up again.) The costumes are wonderful, and the unique ways that the actors/puppeteers bring out the characters are truly creative. I especially enjoyed the work done by the puppeteer controlling Zazu. (Right, during the song "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" with young Nala and Simba.)

In the end, it was a great weekend with great people. We finished with a trip to the Old Spaghetti Factory--a tradition Julie and I have enjoyed since we were kids and our big summer events were Reds games in Cincinnati.

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