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'The Lion King' Remains A Dazzling, Profound Spectacle

Take heart. “The Lion King” has circled back. A new tour of Disney’s long-running Broadway hit, at The Bushnell through Aug. 19, remains an endlessly rewarding spectacle. It positively overwhelms.

The coming-of-age saga about a young lion, with songs by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, gets all the laughs, shrieks and cheers it deserves.

The touring set may not be as all-encompassing and overwhelming as on Broadway, where it’s literally built into the theater, but it’s certainly one of the most expansive and extraordinary sets seen at The Bushnell in years — a very high standard. Geysers of steam shoot from the stage floor. Percussionists are given their own large platforms that abut both sides of the stage, jutting right out into the first few rows of the auditorium. Yes, you can see the thin metal wires that raise the hot African sun at the start of the show and cause a lion to flip off a high rock at its end, but it just doesn’t matter.

An army of hyenas rushes past your seat. Elephants nonchalantly stroll by as well. There are lively performances by children, and a transfixing narrative figure, the staff-wielding Rafiki (Mukelisiwe Goba). The buff actor playing the adult Simba, Jared Dixon, is as much of an athlete as he is a singer and actor. When maneuvering a deepening river, he blithely hops over the translucent blue cloth as if it was a hurdle in a track meet.

Behind The Complex Puppetry Of 'The Lion King' »

It’s hard to describe the 2,800-seat Bushnell as “intimate,” but there’s a human warmth evident in this production that radiates as brightly as that iconic African sun. Amid all the glorious, dazzling designs, you’re easily drawn into the story of a young lion’s struggle to find himself.

“The Lion King” draws classic, universal themes from “Hamlet,””Macbeth,” African folktales and mythology from all over, but it’s also a potent political allegory for our times. Take Mufasa’s advice to Simba: “There’s a lot more to being a king than getting your way all the time.”

“The Lion King” is about many things — loss, grief, change, family, community, openness, inner fortitude, dancing, spelunking and grass — but it’s mostly about leadership.

The story is strong, but there’s also a feeling that this is an elaborate pageant of song, dance and ceremony that has its own momentum. The audience seems to not know when not to clap.

Multiple generations have been enthralled by the endless pomp and pride of “The Lion King.” Something’s right in the world when a child’s first experience of live theater is directed by Julie Taymor. Her vision is undiminished after 20 years — largely because it’s such a complete, consistent one. If “The Lion King” were simply content to create a workable live version of the 1994 movie, it would likely now look like a tired 1994 stage show. But by drawing inspiration from diverse cultures and artforms into one singular vision that retells Simba’s story on its own terms, “The Lion King” remains vital and compelling.

The stand-by performer William John Austin went on as the warthog Pumbaa on Thursday night, a happy circumstance for those who saw him play the African servant Joshua in “Cloud 9” at Hartford Stage last year. The show’s most clownish creatures — Greg Jackson as the fluttering Zazu, Nick Cordileone as the loquacious meerkat Timon — have been given license to add fresh, timely jokes to their amusing patter.

“This wasn’t in the cartoon!,” Zazu sputters, later commenting that a set piece “looks like a shower curtain from Target.” There’s a joke at the expense of “Frozen” that brings the house down. The lines get extra laughs because they’re unexpected.

Thrills. Chills. Surprises. Big laughs. Stunning special effects. Does “The Lion King” live up to its hype? Hakuna matata.

THE LION KING is at at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford through Aug. 19. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. There is no 6:30 p.m. show on the closing Aug. 19. Tickets are $23 to $169. 860-987-5900 and bushnell.org.

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