The Lion King

Gugwana Diamini as Rafiki. Photo by Joan Marcus.

An old maxim notes that it’s best to begin at the beginning.  In the case of “The Lion King,” its beginning may be the best received by an audience ever.  The character Rafiki, a mandrill, sings the goosebump-producing “Circle of Life / Nants Ingonyama” that introduces African voice, thought, music, motion, and rhythm.  Meanwhile, the parade of absolutely stunning human-puppets-as-animals walks the aisles and fills the stage, becoming the most remarkable anthropomorphic array imaginable.  At the opening number’s end, the applause at this performance was deafening.

“The Lion King” is one of the most honored and awarded Broadway musicals of all time.  Despite the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the biggest grossing ever.  Playing in San Jose on its third national tour, it largely replicates the Broadway production, topping the charts on every dimension – scenic; music and sound; choreography and movement; story line; and performance.

Circle of Life. Photo by Brinkhoff-Mogenburg.

But if there is one incomparable distinction, that goes to the fantastic costumes.  Director and Costume Designer Julie Taymor rightfully won Tonys and most every other grantor’s awards in both categories.  In the distinctive style used for most of the animals (lions mostly excepted), the human puppet’s body apparel suggests the animal, but the performer’s face is exposed, while the caricatured animal’s face is suspended on a tether above and in front of the performer’s, allowing the viewer to sense both the actor and the animal character.  The precise movements by each animal also distinguish and amuse – the elongated stretching of the cheetah; the bugged eyes and dangling tongue of the lasciviously ravenous hyenas; the clacking beak of the hornbill; and the particular shifting of the heads of the lions when they communicate.

Darian Sanders as Simba. Photo by Deen van Meer.

The plot is one that appeals to adults and children as well.  King of the lions, Mufasa, is killed under confusing circumstances, and his only son Simba feels the responsibility for the death.  Instead of facing his people, he escapes to the jungle.  Only when Simba becomes a young man does he return to confront his demons and his uncle, Scar, who unrightfully ascended to the throne.

The narrative works particularly well, because of the moral issues it contains.  Musically, the show opens and closes on the same theme, the circle of life, on how we can never have or do everything that we wish, but we can find a place that can leads us to fulfillment.  It is also about the cycle of life – of the inevitability of death and of regeneration.  When Simba cries that his father is gone, he is told to look into the water. It is through that reflection that he realizes that his father lives on in him.  It is also about courage, loyalty, love, environmentalism, and a need for balance in the world, which makes room for animal predator and prey.

Lionesses Dance. Photo by Deen van Meer.

In contrast to what could be considered preachiness in treating with moral issues, plenty of humor lightens the mood.  One of Simba’s buddies in the jungle is Pumbaa, the warthog, who suffers from chronic flatulence.  There are numerous jokes about “gas” that kids find funny – and maybe adults as well.  Even the villain, Scar, provides humor.  Effete, obnoxious, and sarcastic, he becomes a laughable character.

Of course, the music can’t be ignored.  The use of African lyrics and tunes and the pounding of batteries of large drums add locational feel, while many songs drive the plot forward.  Finally, the most memorable piece from the show speaks both to the romance of Simba with Nala and to greater realms – “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”

Darian Sanders as Simba, Kayla Cyphers as Nala. Photo by Deen van Meer.

“The Lion King,” with music and lyrics primarily by Elton John & Tim Rice and book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi, is presented by Broadway San Jose and plays at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 South Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA through August 21, 2022.

Coraline

The Other House. All photos by Cory Weaver.

Along with her parents, 11-year-old Coraline has moved to a new home, and she faces going to a new school.  She hates the healthy, but gloppy, soup that her father routinely makes for lunch.  She’s bored because it’s raining, and she’s not allowed outdoors when she’d like to explore the garden.  What’s more, the neighbors are weird and call her Caroline, much to her displeasure.  Of course, she’s annoyed, petulant, and implacable.  Like many children, she showers the blame on her parents.

In time, Coraline passes through a special door that acts as a devise like the rabbit hole in “Alice in Wonderland” or the tornado in “The Wizard of Oz.”  She enters an alternate world, a house that is identical to her real house, but with parents who accede to her every wish and tell her how much they love her, unlike her real parents, they say.

Kendra Bloom as Coraline, Efrain Solis as Father.

Based on the award-winning 2002 novella by Neil Gaiman, composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Rory Mullarky have crafted an opera that mirrors the creepiness of the novella and the animated film of the same name.  West Edge Opera offers superb voices and orchestra, fine staging, and clever, fanciful costumes in a scintillating production of this enticing work.

The success of this opera hinges on the performance of Coraline, whose role dominates.  Although one might expect the part to go to a lyric soprano, Kendra Broom is a mezzo with considerable dramatic vocal cred that fits the part completely, as tension dominates the girl’s experience.  Broom’s voice penetrates the venue with clarity and accuracy.  Having the look of an ingenue and gesticulating with a child’s mannerisms, she embodies the character extremely well.

Stephanie Sanchez as Mother.

In Coraline’s real world, Stephanie Sanchez as Mother is involved with her but strict.  Efrain Solis as Father is charming but absorbed with his work as an inventor.  Both artists are gifted as singers and actors.  When Coraline moves into the alternate world, the same performers take on the roles of Other Mother and Other Father, but their faces appear like ragdolls with buttons for eyes.  Other Mother tells Coraline that she can always have anything she wants, and the only exchange is that she must allow her eyes to be replaced by buttons.

Stephanie Sanchez as Other Mother.

Much of the thematic material concerns children’s values and perceptions of the world around them.  Children’s appraisals of their parents can be harsh.  But when Coraline realizes that the price of living with the Other Parents is giving up her eyes, she begins to grasp that the grass is not always greener on the other side and initiates action to extricate herself from their grip.

Another moral in the opera that would inform Coraline’s own bravery is a story that she tells about Father.  When the two of them were attacked by wasps, Father shepherded Coraline to safety.  Despite suffering 39 wasp bites, he returned to the swarm to retrieve the eyeglasses he had dropped.  Although Coraline was impressed with his bravery in protecting her, he noted that he wasn’t brave then as he did what he had to do.  He was brave in returning for the glasses, despite the threat, as that involved a conscious decision.  The message is that bravery cannot exist without fear.

Jazmine Olwalia as Miss Forcible, Krista Wigle as Miss Spink.

But Gaiman’s symbolism is not accidental and plumbs darker territory.  Other Mother’s pandering to Coraline’s wants; her manipulation of Coraline’s perceptions; and the condition of removing her eyes point to the sinister practice of mind control that is fundamental to cultism.  This motif occurs throughout Coraline’s time spent in the other world and is amplified by her meeting the Ghost Children who have been abducted by Other Mother.

Turnage’s music is in the modern idiom, but largely tonal, especially the instrumental portion conducted by John Kennedy.  The orchestral balance gives wind instruments more favor than many operas, which provides a sharper tone.  There are occasional unexpected turns in style with shifts in rhythm, but that is in keeping with changing situations and characters that Coraline meets.

Efrain Solis as Other Father, Kendra Broom as Coraline, Stephanie Sanchez as Other Mother.

The opera is enhanced considerably by the visual elements in the production coordinated by Director Tara Branham.  Jefferson Ridenour’s set mixes prosaic packing boxes with large hanging sheets of plastic and eye-catching props such as colorful teddy bears.  A door that can spin on wheels is used to facilitate looking into the real versus alternate house spaces, but sometimes it is not immediately clear which side the players are in.

While Christine Crook’s costumes in the real world are distinctive and appropriate, they sizzle in the other world with bright colors and unusual textures.  Combined with Ridenour’s set, the overall look of the other world is a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria. Each character’s face is completely covered in gauzy material with comic-book facial features attached.  As a result, the audience does not see the facial movement of the singing being produced.  The outcome may seem a little disconcerting, but it absolutely adds to the menacing ambiance intended.

Ghost Children, Kendra Broom as Coraline.

“Coraline” is the American premiere of the opera composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage, with libretto by Rory Mullarky, based on the novella by Neil Gaiman, produced by West Edge Opera, and plays at Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside Drive, Oakland, CA through August 7, 2022.