Tag Archives: Julie Taymor

Top Cat


Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 4th July, 2013

I love Disney – if you don’t believe me, I’ll show you my Mickey Mouse tattoo – but for some reason unknown to me, I have stayed away from the stage adaptation of one of the Magic Kingdom’s most successful animated features.  Until now.  Now the show is touring the country and has set up shop only a few miles from my house, I finally got to see it.

How do you translate animation to the stage?  How do you show the beautifully painted landscapes that enrich the film and give such a sense of place?

Director Julie Taymor answers those questions with puppetry and costume.  It really is the most inventive production design I’ve ever seen.  A slatted sun rises upstage while a woman/baboon (the brilliant Gugwana Dlamini) sings to us in soaring Swahili the spine-tingling Circle of Life – to be honest, she could have been singing Shaddup You Face – the song is almost lost in the audience’s astonished delight as a parade of animals progresses down the aisles, congregating on stage at the foot of Pride Rock – the seat of the lions’ power.  The elephant gets the biggest gasp but for me, the giraffes are the most effective, elegantly presented by performers on two sets of stilts.

This is a fantasy world.  The lions are humanoid figures sporting headgear with masks like tribal chiefs and elders.  Other animals are puppets in a variety of methods – the human operators are always visible.  Through choreography, they act out the famous story, with African-esque rhythms and even a hint of the Far East in some of the techniques used.  It is one of the most beautiful shows I have ever seen.  And inventive!  Taymor doesn’t stint herself: the stampede of wildebeest is remarkably, breath-takingly clever and there are singing plants to rival Little Shop of Horrors.

Unfortunately, the dialogue lets it down.  Lifted directly from the screenplay, it seems to be the poor relation at this spectacular feast.  Quick fire gags and bug-eyed reactions are perfect for an animated figure.  On stage, in highly stylised costumes, the banter doesn’t come across as well.  Taymor needs to direct her genius towards the script.  The language could do with heightening to match the theatrical splendour of the storytelling.  Ditch the Americanisms (or at least give the English kids American accents so the cadence sounds natural) and dump the pop culture references.  What the hell an allusion to DIY SOS is doing in there, I can’t fathom.  It’s cheap and cynical and makes the comedy seemed forced.  I also couldn’t work out why Zazu the bird was inexplicably Scottish and babbling about IKEA.  The show doesn’t need this.  With a more poetic, timeless script, the show could be perfect.

Along come Timon and Pumbaa – this camp comic duo are the most like their animated counterparts and although they are expertly performed by John Hasler and Mark Roper respectively, it feels like they’ve wandered in from a theme park ride.  They don’t fit with the rest of the production.

When so much creativity and effort has gone into making The Lion King a sublimely theatrical experience, it’s a pity that the flaws in the film (the patchy dialogue and the misplaced pop culture references) have made it onto the stage too.

The music though is wonderful, with the best tunes coming not from Elton John but from Hans Zimmer’s score, including the best number of the lot, Shadowland, performed with passion and verve by Carole Stennett as lioness Nala. It is the music that stirs the blood when Simba finally ascends to his rightful place at the top of Pride Rock.

I left the auditorium exhilarated by this display of production arts and theatrical invention.  With a better script to match the stylised representation of these Shakespearean events, the show might have moved me to tears.


Prelude to the Mane Event

Disney’s THE LION KING Launch
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 23rd October, 2012

The cinema has trailers to let you know of forthcoming attractions. The theatre has launches. I was lucky enough to be invited to such an occasion this morning in Birmingham’s tucked-away gem, the Crescent Theatre. It had been taken over for the day by Birmingham Hippodrome to promote what will be one of the city’s greatest theatrical events next year: the touring production of the West End, Broadway and global phenomenon, the stage musical adaptation of one of the most successful animated feature films ever.


I make a big deal of it because I’m against a notion prevalent within the minds of some producers, agents and other showbiz professionals that nothing of note goes on beyond the bounds of the M25. That a tour of a show of this scale (50 people on stage, 150 behind the scenes) is now do-able is good news all around the country and is a big feather in the Hippodrome’s cap. If people are attracted to their local theatre by a big show, they may well come back for some of the other, homegrown fare. Theatre can be very addictive.

(Of course, there is a counter-argument that someone more academic than I could posit in a hefty dissertation about the branding of shows and the plundering of other cultures in the postmodern, corporate world. I’m not going to do that here. Perhaps I will be led to touch on such matters when I come to review the show next June.)

These launches are always very pleasant. A glass of Buck’s Fizz at 10:30? Don’t mind if I do. Who attends? Apart from yours truly and various members of the Press, the place was packed with “friends” of the Hippodrome, group bookers, and also representatives from a range of businesses. An influx of theatregoers into the city will bring opportunities for restaurants, bars, shops, hotels and all the rest of them. This is a marketing exercise, after all.

It was also a very enjoyable morning.

The presentation was led by Stephen Crocker of Disney Theatrical Group. Using slides and video clips, he described the genesis of the stage show – a sort of ‘making of’ feature like you find on DVDs. Best of all there were songs by cast members in full get-up. “Rafiki “got things off to a hair-raising, blood-stirring start with The Circle of Life, backed by the Birmingham Gospel Choir. There is something primal, something rousing about this number, coupled of course with nostalgia for the film. Other songs were performed by members of the London cast, as Simba and Nala. We began to see how the masks, on top of their heads rather than over their faces, work.

Crocker demonstrated some of the masks and even in his inexpert hands, the remarkable puppet of the bird Zazu came to life. On screen, director and genius-in-chief Julie Taymor spoke of her eclectic use of Masai dress and Balinese jewellery for example, and the simple but ingenious way animals, plants and even the sunrise are represented. It’s all about theatricality, which is refreshing in this CGI-saturated world. More than that, The Lion King, like any myth, like the Shakespeare from which it borrows, is about people. This informs all of Taymor’s design and directorial choices. It was fascinating. You might say, she has pride in her work. (You might; I would never stoop to such a poor joke.) It might be (well, it definitely is!) a commercial venture, but it’s also about artistry of the highest quality.

And it certainly did the trick with me. I can’t wait to see the show. June 2013 seems a long way off. Start saving your pennies, folks.