Had it been entrusted to a different imagination, the musical version of Disney’s “The Lion King” might have become an expensive piece of children’s theater — a regurgitation of Elton John and Tim Rice’s famous songs from the animated version performed by actors in animal costumes.
But Julie Taymor, the famous stage and film director who not only directed the production but also designed its costumes, masks and puppets, had a much more fantastical vision.
In bringing the giraffes, elephants, hyenas, birds, monkeys and other jungle animals of “The Lion King” to life on stage, Taymor created an approach dubbed the “double event.”
It will take audience members a few minutes to get used to it — but only a few.
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The double event’s roots are in a 16th-century Japanese theater form called Bunraku puppetry, in which the puppeteers — in additional to the puppets — are visible to the audience.
Taymor’s and co-designer Michael Curry’s interpretation gave birth to a menagerie of animals that take on human and puppet form simultaneously. The actors that control the puppets and wear the masks are fully visible and perform the parts as well, blending the two into one.
It’s first noticeable in the parade of jungle animals that opens the show — 18-foot-tall giraffes portrayed by actors hunched over walking on both arm and leg stilts, their faces visible at the junction of the giraffe’s torso and neck. Gazelles created as dancers leap across the stage with the animal’s form attached to their arms and heads. Zebras and cheetahs reminiscent of Greek centaurs — animal in the back, human in the front.
The two characters that most challenge the audience to accept the duality are Zazu, the red-billed hornbill that serves an advisor to King Mufasa and a protector to young Simba, and Timon, the wise-cracking meerkat who befriends Simba in the jungle.
Zazu is played by Mark David Kaplan, dressed in a blue suit and hat with blue and white paint decorating his face. Kaplan holds an intricate bird puppet, which he controls with his hands and a series of complex levers. Kaplan the actor is performing the role at the same time that he operates the puppet. Both are saying the lines. Both are emoting. The eye goes from Kaplan to the puppet, back to Kaplan and back to the puppet. Then somehow, the two blend, and the duality is hardly noticeable.
The same is true of Timon, a full-sized puppet harnessed to the front of actor Nick Cordileone, who is in an all-green suit with green face paint and a green wig. The meerkat is a 14-pound walking, talking puppet Cordileone controls while also performing all the appropriate movements and facial expressions himself.
The double event is a big draw to the “Lion King” performers, who say it offers a new professional challenge.
Brent Harris, who stars as villain Scar, has one of the most difficult dual event jobs. His mask is a mechanical head that he controls using a tiny remote device hidden in his hand. As he performs his lines, the lion mask tilts, rears and threatens, enhancing his performance.
“You’re aware of the artifice, but you sort of forget it, and you completely buy into it,” he said. “A lot of it is seeing the magic of the artistry revealed to you, and yet it doesn’t reduce the wonder. It sort of almost amplifies it.”
When done correctly, the dual event enhances the characters, giving the audience an artistic two-fer, said Dionne Randolph, who plays Mufasa.
Randolph has rehearsed his part several times with Taymor, who he said offered him advice on inhabiting both his mask and his role.
At first, it was distracting and stressful, he said. Now, it’s second nature.
“I remember Julie said to us, ‘We look for people who have joy with the puppet, who know it’s there but don’t really focus on it,’ ” he said. “You use it as an actor to just create a greater emotion.”