Rafiki Rules the Serengeti As ‘Lion King’ Loses Some Edge

Most of you (especially if you have kids) know at least a tune or two from The Lion King, the 1994 Disney musical animation that stormed a Minneapolis stage three years later and has since become the third longest-running show of any kind in Broadway history. Some 85 million patrons in 20 countries can’t get enough of stalwart young Simba, patriarch Mufasa, sweet-cheeked Nala, baddie renegade Scar, glad-handing sidekicks Timon and Pumbaa, the persnickety Zazu, the roily hyena clan and Simba’s hard-won ascendancy to leadership on a replenished Serengeti savannah.

The show played San Diego in 2005 and 2009; the ’05 show was outstanding amid the lavish costumes, exquisite stage pictures and primordial, exotic music and sound. Amid everybody’s excitement stood the vagabond baboon Rafiki, who more than anyone may make or break Simba’s future.

Once again, her portrayer is an absolutely colossal standout in the current Broadway San Diego entry, the vital pivot that helps hone this piece into the cultural monument it is.

Rafiki (Buyi Zama) brilliantly rides herd over eastern Africa's wild and woolly Serengeti. Photos by Matthew Murphy.

Rafiki (Buyi Zama) brilliantly rides herd over eastern Africa’s wild and woolly Serengeti. Photos by Matthew Murphy.

But even cultural monuments succumb to the rigors of their fates (that’s what defines them as monuments in the first place) — and so it is with this entry. It’s good, but its ideally stately sense of spectacle dims somewhat amid an excessive, almost overwrought effort.

Some of y’all’ve known the fairytale plot since before you were born: Mufasa, Simba’s devoted dad and beloved regent of the Pride Lands, is killed in a wildebeest stampede, but not before he delivers his disconsolate son from death. That makes Simba the new leader, much to the dismay of Mufasa’s evil brother Scar, who hatched the assassination plot and stood to take over the kingdom if Simba had met daddy’s fate.

Scar succeeds in convincing Simba that the cub was responsible for Mufasa’s death, urging him to abandon the Pride Lands in disgrace. Twists and turns mark Simba’s adventure as Scar fraudulently assumes command, with the opportunist hyenas depleting the Pride Lands — but amid Rafiki’s impassioned counsel, a rightful king returns to avenge Mufasa’s death, exiling Scar and unwittingly consigning him to a much more dismal fate.

Simba (Aaron Nelson) is determined to follow in his father's considerable footsteps, no matter the cost.

Simba (Aaron Nelson) is determined to follow in his father’s considerable footsteps, no matter the cost.

Nothing fancy there, as the line between good and evil is meticulously drawn — but oh, my, what terrific subtext. Lioness moms whose still waters run unimaginably deep; peas-in-a-pod warthog Pumbaa and meerkat Timon (San Diego native and Lamb’s Players Theatre veteran Nick Cordileone); gentle, loyal Nala; the squinty hyenas who’d as soon skarf hornbill Zazu as look at him; the unbreakable bond between Simba and Mufasa: It’s all laid out as in thousands of prior productions, wherein the African landscape brims with the majesty and mystery of the circle of life.

But that mystery is as definable as this show’s problems. While everyone is in good voice and dutifully cascades throughout the light and dark, too many scenes fail amid too little use of the stage as a character development tool. The Serengeti’s desolation is depicted through sound and lights rather than through illustration.

Julie Taymor’s costumes and masks, Richard Hudson’s scene designs, Donald Holder’s lights and Garth Fagan’s choreography are sumptuous and evocative, but the cast’s failure to play the moment often undercuts the visuals.

The 45 players often seem rushed into legato scenes and stage pictures, abandoning the required staccato timbre that colors life and death on the African plain. The grandeur is thus diminished, with Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi’s simplistic dialogue having inadvertently seized the spotlight.

But oh, for Buyi Zama’s Rafiki! This wise old shaman and chief advisor to Mufasa positively brims with delight and gratitude for the spiritual forces that shape the world, and Zama doesn’t miss a histrionic or physical trick in portraying as much. Her antics are the reason Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey), Simba (Aaron Nelson), Nala (Nia Holloway) and Scar (Mark Campbell) exude the balance of power they do; her “Circle of Life” and “He Lives in You” command our curiosity and attention throughout.

Scar (Mark Campbell, left) and Simba (Aaron Nelson) go head to head, with the future of the Pride Lands in the balance.

Scar (Mark Campbell, left) and Simba (Aaron Nelson) go head to head, with the future of the Pride Lands in the balance.

Nelson’s Simba and Holloway’s very good Nala work off a nice boy-girl chemistry, with Holloway excelling in the number “Shadowlands.” Mufasa’s abiding respect for the world’s life-death cycle has yielded his inner peace, and Ramsey plays the character accordingly.

Mark Campbell’s Scar (“Be Prepared”) is villainous enough in a role that isn’t that well drawn. Timon (Cordileone) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz) are inseparable whether they like it or not, and the actors understand. Hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed (Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Keith Bennett and Robbie Swift) are fine, but their costuming is wildly off-kilter.

Young Simba and Young Nala (BJ Covington, Julian Rivera-Summerville, Meilani Cisneros or Savanna Fleisher, depending on your night) come through as the best of friends they are. Meanwhile, if you don’t recognize the music and lyrics of Elton John, Tim Rice et al. (here under music director Jamie Schmidt’s orchestrals), you probably died a long time ago.

It’s no fluke that Zama, a native of Durban, South Africa, got the biggest applause at media night. Her Rafiki is a force of nature who holds this piece in the palm of her hand, sometimes without saying a word. Please do enjoy her nuanced, spectacular turn in this visual feast of a story, a gallant attempt at Disneyesque suspension of belief.

Sadly, she can do only so much in fueling an ensemble culture that, at least for now, often leaves its architects behind.

This review is based on the media-night performance of Sept. 8. Disney’s the Lion King runs through Oct. 2 at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave. downtown. $41-$260. broadwaysd.com, (619) 570-1100.

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