Despite being 25 years old on Broadway and outlived my children’s childhood, “The Lion King” still manages to amaze adults and children alike with its level of spectacle.
Think about it for a moment. A lot of other things from the 1990s don’t.
And a packed house Friday night at the Cadillac Palace Theater for the the return of the show to Chicago, after a pandemic-prolonged five-year gap, is yet another reminder of just how much Disney and director Julie Taymor have achieved with this show. “The Lion King” had enough independent credibility to earn excellent reviews and connoisseur approval; it delivered romantic Elton John ballads for mainstream family audiences comforted by melodrama; and, over time, this multinational masterpiece has proven to have been way ahead of the cultural curve in terms of environmentalism, diversification, and providing opportunities for black actors everywhere.
I’ve written extensively over the years about this show, an alchemical triumph, you might say, born of Taymor’s business imperative and quixotic genius, and prima facie proof of the oft-ignored truth that great entertainers compelled by attracting money to appeal to a mass audience may kvetch and complain to stay cool with their fans, but that doesn’t mean that coercion stops them from doing their best.
On the contrary. Look at Taylor Swift.
On Friday, however, Chicagoans and visitors alike were watching the 2022-23 touring cast of the show’s long-running North American run — which you won’t be surprised to learn are in excellent shape. The show is unchanged, of course, and remains in great shape. The same goes for the mostly young performers, some of whom are younger than the show itself now. The scintillating physique of the athletic set of lions is so impressive that they could change at least one set of lyrics to “Can you see the pecs tonight?” Darian Sanders, who plays the adult Simba, shines with excellence in muscular musical theatre. Talk about Pride Rock.
The famous opening of “The Lion King,” of course, in which a plethora of puppet versions parade through the aisles, breaks all the usual rules about saving the best for last. (It’s not a show to arrive late for, by the way.) It also ensures that the kids get attention and the parents relax immediately, knowing that the ticket money was well spent.
Long ago, Taymor wrote that the most moving point of the show is “the sunrise, the sound of voices and the visibility of people in the puppets”. She was right, of course, and the emotional pull of what audiences see, even before any sort of traditional storytelling has begun, is so intense that it lasts all night.
Of all the excellent performers in this cast, the one who most clearly gets emotion’s crucial role in the show is Gerald Ramsey, who plays lion patriarch Mustafa and whose performance is a masterclass in the show’s emotional trajectory. : pride, grief, struggle, resilience, hope.
Ultimately, of course, “The Lion King,” which made more money than all the “Star Wars” movies combined and will bring some much-needed life to the Loop for the upcoming holiday weeks, is a heartwarming Show.
It speaks, of course, of the circle of life, of the idea that we don’t die but simply take an eternal place on the unfolding path, watching those we love. Hope.
Chris Jones is a reviewer for the Tribune.
Review: “The Lion King” (4 stars)
When: Until January 14, 2023
Where: Cadillac Palace Theater, 151 W. Randolph St.
Tickets: $69.50 to $195.50 at 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com