It now has been 18 years since Julie Taymor's "The Lion King" bowed on Broadway, and the tour that officially opened at the Cadillac Palace Theatre Friday has been carting giraffes on stilts everywhere from Anchorage to Albuquerque for a whopping 13 years. Feeling old?
A huge chunk of the audience in Chicago Friday was not born when Rafiki the monkey first unleashed "Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba!" — one of the best opening lines in one of the best opening numbers in the history of the art form. Loosely translated, that opening line to "Circle of Life" means "A lion is coming."
And still making well over $2 million each and every week on Broadway, commanding (during the recent Thanksgiving week) an astonishing $180 as the average — not the top — price for a seat.
You should be able to get away with paying a good bit less than that in Chicago, but tickets to "The Lion King," through its next goodbye in the new year (it's off to Tampa), already are heavily sold. So it's one thing to admit that you cannot argue with this level of success. It's another to note that very few phenomena in live entertainment stay absolutely at the top of their unchanged game for 18 years. By the time "Hamilton" reaches this point, Lin-Manuel Miranda will have so much money, he'll be appearing on his own $10 bills.
I've lost count how many times I've seen "The Lion King" — at least seven or eight. But it had been a while. So I have a few updated musings as to why this show is, well, this show.
There are obvious factors beyond the pull of a simple but primal narrative drawn loosely from "Hamlet." The "Circle of Life" applies just as well to the constant birth of new audience members. The source movie is still a popular babysitter. The huge marketing muscle in New York — I am staring at a digital poster for the show as I write this review — has only burnished the brand.
But I was reminded Friday of the wisdom of Taymor's choice to, in the opening number, throw out everything at once, as all the animals come trotting down the aisles. A little girl across me had been squirming on both her parents' laps — I could see they were wondering if bringing so young a child to a full-length show was a wise choice.
But then the humanized beasts arrived, just inches from the face, and, boom, she was caught in a Disney net and transfixed through the end of Act 2. The relief on her parents' face was palpable — I watched this family all night and, although I shared no words with them, I'd swear that the three of them were having, like, their best night together, ever. For a lot of people, "The Lion King" is their first big show. It is a rite of passage, from "little kid" to "kid who can dress up and go out for the night."
Luckily for Taymor — who, let us note, has never been able to repeat this astonishing marriage of commercialism and the avant-garde — the creative process for "The Lion King" took place before the digital explosion. Otherwise she would sorely have been tempted — oh yes — not to do, say, that amazing wildebeest piano-roll scene, but some virtual approximation thereof. Had she done so, "The Lion King" would now look old. There are artistic warnings therein. Richard Hudson's design for this show remains one of the great theatrical designs of all time — and the screens you'll see are only the furtive ones in the seats.
Oh, you want to know how this version plays? Sure. Not discernibly different from any of the others, although any tour that has been out this long has moments when it feels like the movements created by other actors, long ago, do not sit organically anymore. Just like "A Christmas Carol" at the Goodman Theatre, "The Lion King" gets a touch more comic as the years roll by, and a tad less dramatic. And the actors get younger. It seems.
But who cares? It's still plenty dramatic and emotional whomever you see listed on the boards in the lobby (I especially liked Mukelisiwe Goba's Rafiki and Ben Lipitz' Pumbaa).
Actually, "The Lion King" really does make you feel a bit better about your eventual death — which is coming, you know, dear reader. You get to ponder the circle of life and all that.
We'll go back into the earth, and "The Lion King" will still be on tour.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
REVIEW: 'The Lion King'
When: Through Jan. 17
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35-$180 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com