The Lion King sings and dances its way to Milwaukee

Which one of these is not quite like the others: Johannesburg. Sydney. Tokyo. Paris. New York. Seoul. Hamburg. Milwaukee. Wait Milwaukee?

Milwaukee will soon join that illustrious list of international cities that have hosted Disney's colossally successful, Tony award-winning musical "The Lion King" when it opens Feb. 3 at the Milwaukee Theatre, 500 W. Kilbourn Ave. For two of the show's performers, the former Broadway production's arrival in Milwaukee represents a homecoming of sorts.

Bob Amaral, who plays the warthog Pumbaa, has spent considerable time in Milwaukee because his wife is currently training and lecturing at the Montessori Institute of Milwaukee. And Michael Dean Morgan, who plays Mufasa's right-hand-bird Zazu, is a Waukesha native and Carroll College graduate.

Both actors guarantee audiences are in store for something they've never seen before when they see "The Lion King."

"There has never been a show before or since like 'The Lion King,'" Morgan said.

The 1994 animated movie provided the framework for the stage production to expand upon for its nearly three-hour-long running time. The music in particular has been expanded; in addition to the Elton John and Tim Rice songs taken from the original film (like "Circle of Life" and "Hakuna Matata") there are new songs created by South African artist Lebo M.

"The show has been re-imagined for the stage," Morgan said. "It follows the film very closely, but is nothing like it. African music and the African languages also play a much larger role."

Famed stage and film director Julie Taymor is the mastermind behind the re-imagination of "The Lion King." Taymor directed the original show amidst the bright lights of Broadway in New York in 1997. Taymor also co-designed more than 100 costumes, masks and puppets for the show.

Her creativity and artistry should come as no surprise. Nearly everything on Taylor's resume has a strikingly distinctive visual element to it. Her 2002 film "Frida," which seamlessly integrated the still-life paintings of Frida Kahlo into full-motion scenes, earned six Oscar nominations. Just last year Taymor directed "Across the Universe," the love story set to the tune of an all-Beatles soundtrack that featured eye-popping musical numbers often presented in a sort of poetic chaos.

"Julie's history and knowledge of all the different elements of stage craft, puppetry and mask work are all invaluable and apparent in this production," Amaral said. "Her vision is this production."

The detailed animal costumes and complex puppetry are aspects where the stage production really deviates from the film. The puppets especially bring a degree of interactivity that is nearly impossible to convey on film.

"Some of the puppets are hardly noticeable, while others (like mine for instance), you can hardly miss," Amaral said. "If you do your job properly, you hardly notice the difference between the actor and the puppet. They eventually become one."

Morgan's character of Zazu is also one that requires operation of a puppet. With his body painted entirely blue, Morgan controls the puppet's eyes, mouth and wings while he sings, dances and recites his lines.

"Both the actor and the puppet can be seen at all times and it is up to the audience to decide which to look at," Morgan said.

The actors not in control of puppets don't have it easy, however.

"The dancers who perform as giraffes had to learn to walk with stilts on both their hands and feet," Morgan said. "It is all very difficult but with a lot of practice, it appears easy."

Morgan and Amaral both said they were lucky to be involved in such a remarkable production. With its universally recognized story and elaborate production values, "The Lion King" has become an event in every city it visits.

"I think audiences have been drawn to this show for 10 years because of the way we tell it," Morgan said. "It's not just the puppets, but the way Julie Taymor has joined the music, set, lights, and actors as one living entity."

Amaral agreed, saying both children and adults have responded to both the 1994 film and the stage adaptation because the themes it communicates are universal.

"There is so much to be learned from 'The Lion King' – life, death, sharing, giving, forgiveness and hope," Amaral said. "All that from a little cartoon. Life should be so encouraging and positive."

"The Lion King" will run until March 2 at the Milwaukee Theatre. Tickets are still available and fluctuate in price (typically starting at $20.) Tickets can be purchased at the box office, at www.ticketmaster.com or by phone at 414-276-4545.