Stage Door: The Circle of Life

click to enlarge "The Lion King"
"The Lion King"

I've seen The Lion King five times, on Broadway and on tour. I wrote about it in a feature this week, describing how a successful but not terribly profound animated Disney feature became a stage musical that's a worldwide phenomenon. A touring production is at the Aronoff through April 26; it's the third time the show has landed in Cincinnati.

Rather than evaluate the performers — who are highly talented and extremely polished in their presentation of the show — I decided to pay attention to the visuals this time around. It was worth it. The Lion King has the most inspiring opening of any show I've seen: A call and response between Rafiki, a nervous mandrill and two others brings together a clutch of African animals to Pride Rock where a regal pair of lions, King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi are presenting their new cub. The animals enter the theater from all directions — from the stage wings and down the Aronoff's aisles, enabling the audience to see the actors in their puppet gear up close as they sing "The Circle of Life." It's a great way to begin the show's magic.

But it's only the start: There is color and pageantry to burn in this story — from a colony of loony hyenas to a fatal stampede of antelopes. The second act opens with the chorus dressed in colorful clothes with ornate puppet birds and kites sing "One on One." I was reminded of the wonderful South African choral groups that inspired Cincinnati audiences during the World Choir games in 2012 — passionate harmonizing and heart-thumping rhythms. From start to finish, The Lion King is a remarkable experience. If you've seen it once, it's worth going again to appreciate new dimensions of this gorgeous production. Tickets: 513-621-2781.


Two good shows onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse this weekend, and they couldn't be more different from one another. It's the final weekend for Peter and the Starcatcher (CityBeat review here) a prequel to Peter Pan that elaborates in a fanciful way about the origins of the boy who refuses to grow up, Captain Hook, the Lost Boys, Tinker Bell and more. It's driven by imaginative theater-making — instead of special effects, audiences are called upon to envision things like storms brewing and characters flying. A great show for families. … On the Shelterhouse stage it's serious drama with Tracey Scott Wilson's Buzzer (CityBeat review here), the story of three people moving into a redeveloping urban neighborhood. It feels like Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine. Tensions spurred by changing populations provide context for this story, but it's really about the toxic dynamic between an up-and-coming black attorney, his white schoolteacher girlfriend and his white boyhood pal who's led a troubled life. A strong cast and Wilson's naturalistic dialogue make this a very watchable (but very adult) show. This one is onstage through April 19. Box office: 513-421-3888.

Know Theatre opened it's production of the comic-book inspired Hearts Like Fists last weekend. It's a two-dimensional tale of girl crime fighters battling a dastardly villain, Doctor X, who's murdering lovers — since his own love life is in shambles. There's humor but not a lot of depth to this one, but if you like slam-bang action stories, you'll love the fight choreography and the silly posing of the characters. It's around until April 25. Tickets: 513-300-5669 … A block away from Know in Over-the-Rhine, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati is winding down its production of Detroit ’67 (CityBeat review here), set in a tumultuous era in the Motor City as a brother and sister struggle to make a living while the world around them is burning. Although it's rooted in events from nearly a half-century ago, this one has some very prescient messages that seem like they're about more recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. Final performance is 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: 513-421-3555.

Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.

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