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‘Lion King’ still has power to awe

September 9, 2016 GMT

Ever since the recession, there has been a trend toward smaller musicals, with minimalist sets and fewer actors, who often play their own instruments onstage.

So it’s a feast for the eyes and ears to see Disney’s “The Lion King” back in residence at the San Diego Civic Theatre this month. The spectacular, epically scaled musical — which played here in 2005 and 2009 — is practically a moving city, with 134 cast and crew, 200 puppets, more than 100 costumes and 700 lighting instruments that travel the country in an 18-truck caravan.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; plus 1 p.m. matinee Sept. 29. Through Oct. 2.Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtownTickets: About $37-$158 (premium ticket packages available)Phone: (619/760/858) 570-1100Online: broadwaysd.com

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; plus 1 p.m. matinee Sept. 29. Through Oct. 2.

Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown

Tickets: About $37-$158 (premium ticket packages available)

Phone: (619/760/858) 570-1100

Online: broadwaysd.com

Of course, big doesn’t always mean better, and Disney’s mass-appeal musicals have their share of detractors. But of all the animated films that Disney has put onstage, “The Lion King” remains at the top of the heap, or in this case, Pride Rock. Very few stories have been as creatively re-imagined for the stage as “The Lion King,” whose musical version turns 20 next year.

The stage production is like and unlike its 1994 film predecessor. The storyline is mostly intact with with characters and lines near-copies, but its visual design is among the most inventive and ambitious ever created.

Director Julie Taymor designed a vast menagerie of masks, shadow puppets, robotics, costumes, stilt creations, kite-like birds and cycle-driven and pole-mounted models that bring to life the lions, zebras, giraffes, gazelles, hyenas and stampeding wildebeests that populate this simple story about a lion cub’s coming of age in the African savannah.

Over the years, “The Lion King” has been seen by more than 85 million people worldwide, but judging by the oohs and ahhs from the Civic Theatre audience Thursday night, it’s still an eye-popping wonder for most first-time (and even third-time) viewers.

For those who aren’t familiar with the “Hamlet”-inspired story, it’s about Simba, a headstrong lion cub who runs away from home after the murder of his lion king dad, Mufasa, then returns as an adult to reclaim the throne from his avaricious uncle, Scar.

Because the show’s visual storytelling is so powerful, the costumed actors onstage can be easily overshadowed. Fortunately, this year’s tour cast has several standouts who humanize their stylized animal characters.

The best and most subtle interpreters are Gerald Ramsey as the haunted, aging lion king Mufasa and Nia Holloway as Nala, the fierce lioness who flawlessly performs the musical’s best original number “Shadowland.”

For sheer laughs, it’s hard to beat South African actor Buyi Zama, who’s engaging and kooky as Rafiki, the shaman baboon. Former San Diegan Nick Cordileone, who plays the wisecracking meerkat Timon, has the show’s best accent and comic timing. And Cordileone shares “best puppetry” honors with Drew Hirshfield, who plays Zazu, the hornbill bird who’s chief information officer of the Pridelands.

The show’s not perfect. The snarling Scar (Mark Campbell) is too campy and cartoonish, the hyenas get too much stage time, the “Endless Night” solo by adult Simba (brawny Aaron Nelson) is a yawn, and the first act is much stronger.

But it’s hard to recall a musical at the Civic that delivers a bigger bang for the buck than “The Lion King,” and that debt is paid within the first 15 minutes of the show, the full cast parade and assembly “Circle of Life.”

Musicals come and go at the Civic, but “The Lion King” has that something extra that will probably have it returning again and again 50 years into the future.