On Thursday night, I walked into the Lion King at the Academy of Music with my wife and two children (ages seven and nine) after goat tacos and margaritas at Jose Pistola’s (well, the kids had juice), not entirely sure what to expect.
Oh, I knew there was some character named Simba. And I knew that I was going to hear that wretched Elton John tune “Circle of Life.” But that’s about it.
When I mentioned my plans to a friend on Thursday, he responded, "Hakuna Matata!" And I was like, "What?" No clue. Never saw the movie. Wasn't aware that there wasn't a book. Never spent a gazillion dollars to go see it on Broadway.
And when I told my kids that I knew virtually nothing about the Lion King, my nine-year-old son offered this assistance en route to the theater: "It's about a lion cub who ascends to the throne." Gee, thanks, kid. Never woulda guessed that.
The show came in at over two-and-a-half hours with a "fifteen" (read: twenty-five) minute intermission. I'm told they cut some songs, which was fine with me. The kids normally hit the sack at 7:30 p.m. (I know, that's rough), which is when the curtain went up — or at least that's when it was supposed to go up. And the merchandising staff — this show is merchandised out the wazoo — used the waiting time as an opportunity to walk through the aisles with trays of overpriced Lion King toys and mementos for sale, which was a bit much.
So what's there to say about the show itself? I thought that veteran Philadelphia theater-maker Greg Giovanni nailed it with a comment he posted on Facebook last night after seeing the Lion King at the Academy of Music, also for the first time. He summed it up in three words: Beautiful but unsatisfying.
He went on:
My "theatre wife" hit it on the head when she said, “There is no room for critical thinking, nothing to think about or learn.” I would add, "you never question the hero and you never sympathize with the villain." As entertaining as Disney® is, it sucks that generations think of these works as "great children’s entertainment." They’re merely cotton candy for the soul.
But as cotton candy for the soul goes, the Academy of Music Lion King production is the top of the line cotton candy for the soul. Not that pre-made stuff you buy at the grocery store (ew), but the kind you get freshly spun at a carnival in the summer. (OK, that stuff is pretty ew, too, but you get the point.)
No, my kids didn't walk out of there asking critical questions, but they had big old grins on their faces the entire time and actually sat through something that was approaching three hours in length.
And with a show of that production caliber, they came away thinking about the impressive stagecraft and puppetry involved, and something tells me they're going to be trying to create a twelve-foot-tall giraffe over the weekend.
Plus, we're a very musical household, and the Lion King's music is one of the main highlights of the show. If you wince every time you hear the movie versions of the Elton John songs, you should know that they're much, much better performed on the stage. And the music provides an entry point to explore more African music genres: I bet your kids would be thrilled to be introduced to Fela Kuti.
But, ultimately, the Lion King reminds us that we need more quality children's theater in Philadelphia. Children's theater that does leave room for critical thinking, that does give them something to think about, something to learn.
We love taking the kids to see whatever children's theater the Arden does, and if you missed their stunning and thoroughly non-Disney production of Beauty and the Beast over the winter, you missed out. (Luckily, you still have time to get to the Arden for their thoroughly non-Disney production of Jungle Book, which wraps on June 21st.)
The kids (and their parents) have also enjoyed the work of theater creator and puppet maker Sebastian Mundheim. The new initiative from PAPAYA seems promising. And there are occasionally some interesting children's offerings in the FringeArts Festival.
But we need more. A lot more.
Pig Iron Theatre Company co-founder Quinn Bauriedel has long talked about the idea of creating a "theater speakeasy" for kids. And I think the time is right for that.
Many members of the theater community that helped put Philadelphia's live arts scene on the map in a major way have children of their own or will soon. Seriously, there must be something in the water.
And more and more people are choosing to raise their kids inside the city — smart parents with smart kids looking for smart things to do.
So this seems like the perfect time to start a new movement and to create a new generation of theater creators so that, hopefully, when we're old and grey, we'll have something other than just the Lion King to look at. (But, for real, we are so taking our grandkids to see the Lion King when that day comes.)