'The Lion King' is a beautiful, timeless classic

| Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Despite a generation of performances on Broadway and appearances in 98 cities in 16 countries, “The Lion King” still rules.

As it begins a three-week run at the Benedum Center, Downtown, as a nonsubscriber presentation of PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh, the national touring production remains as fresh, lively and beautiful as a young gazelle leaping across the plains of Africa.

Its beginnings as a 1994 Walt Disney animated feature film make it tempting to think of it as a show for children. That's certainly justified.

Though its running time — 2 12 hours with one intermission — makes it a bit long for younger children, it's also a great way to introduce slightly older kids to the delights, possibilities and artistry of live theater.

It's gloriously attractive, moves quickly and offers humor that can be appreciated by kids and adults.

Though the story has some inescapably dark moments — a parent's death, a surprisingly scary stampede, perils involving Simba — they are neatly handled.

Mask and puppet designers Michael Curry and Julie Taymor, who also did the costumes, collaborated with scenic designer Richard Hudson, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy and hair and makeup designer Michael Ward to create a complete fantasy world.

The production tells the story of the young lion Simba's journey from reckless cub to responsible ruler while balancing the human and animal traits of all the characters with imaginative performances and representations. Its score and scenic elements also honor the story's African roots.

The coming of dawn on an African plain and the gathering of animals that opens the show set the tone for the entire evening with dignity and exquisite beauty.

While the touring production appears to have streamlined some of the scenery, the production continues to create lushly appointed settings — a jungle with extravagant foliage, the revolving Pride Rock and an eerie elephant graveyard.

Choreographer Garth Fagan supplies myriad modern dance numbers. Adults will enjoy them for their artistry while pacing and visual interest keep younger audience members connected.

Adult lead characters turn in polished performances and carry much of the burden for the show's humor.

Most notable is Patrick R. Brown's acerbic villain Scar, a malcontent second son whose plot to become ruler by eliminating his brother and his nephew drives the drama. He relishes every moment of his diabolic conspiracy with delicious Richard III-like wit.

L. Steven Taylor plays Mufasa, the lion pride's well-respected ruler and Simba's stern but affectionate father.

Ben Lipitz's Pumbaa and Nick Cordileone's Timon handle most of the good-natured physical and kid-pleasing humor.

Brown Lindiwe Mkhize's shaman Rafiki is exotic and appealing, and Andrew Gorell mines the humor and humanity of Zazu, Mufasa's dithering but dignified steward and assistant.

A huge ensemble of singers, dancers and puppeteers keeps the show visually interesting; they inject reality and personality into the multiple characters — plants as well as animals — that enliven this musical.

Despite the years and the miles, it's a show that brings the same delight to audiences as it did at its Broadway opening.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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