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Long Live the King 

Once again, The Lion King thrills beyond all expectations.

There's no entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest time someone has kept his mouth open. But if the folks at Guinness are interested, they might start in the audience of Playhouse Square's production of The Lion King. From the opening animal gathering in "The Circle of Life" to its reprise at the final curtain, this is a show that leaves patrons slack-jawed in amazement.

And while some touring shows tend to cut corners with simpler sets and fewer costumes, it's gratifying to report that the current touring iteration at the State Theatre hasn't lost an ounce of its original vigor.

Of course, for those who insist on intricate plotting and multilayered characters, this King is more of a pawn. The simplistic yarn about a lion cub suffering the death of his father and then slowly growing to fill Pa's paw prints offers no surprises. And each animal's character is as predictable and consistent as feeding time at the zoo.

But The Lion King is more about exuberant, imaginative staging than anything else, and on that score it trounces virtually any theatrical event. Ever. Julie Taymor, who designed the mind-bendingly brilliant costumes and who also directs, is possessed of a genius that is frankly unquantifiable. Combining traditional, shadow, and Bunraku puppetry (in which the puppeteers are visible to the audience), Taymor created human/animal hybrids that often merge so completely, one loses track of the people who are making it happen.

Add those remarkable animals to a musical mosaic by Elton John and Tim Rice, spiced generously with South African chants and percussive accents, and you have a theatrical experience that will stake out a corner of your memory for a very long time. And that doesn't even count the stunning visuals of Richard Hudson's scenic design, complete with the rotating Pride Rock and a giant orange sun shimmering behind horizontal waves of jungle heat.

Happily, the individual performances in this company match the awesome surroundings. Mufasa, the daddy lion, is played with immense dignity and touching "humanity" by Geno Segers. Michael Dean Morgan has a boatload of fun as Zazu, operating his banana-beaked bird with smooth dexterity and nailing a number of his laugh lines. (His comment on the large African print fabric hiding one scene change: "It looks like a shower curtain from Pier 1.")

As Mufasa's brother, the villainous Scar, Kevin Gray is a sneaky sleazebag, inhabiting his spiky costume with an ideal mixture of smarm and venom. Gugwana Dlamini brings raucous good humor to her role as Rafiki, the storyteller, and John Gardiner is a stitch as wisecracking Timon the meerkat.

In fact, words do not suffice when trying to describe The Lion King. If you are open to wonder and awe, and you aren't afraid to open up the childlike part of you that still wants to be thrilled by sights you can't imagine, this is your show. It turns moments into magic, and that's not an achievement anyone should take lightly.

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