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Proud 'Lion King' still dazzles

"The Lion King" is still a regal visual treat.

The top-earning musical -- now at Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale through Feb. 1 -- hasn't (at first glance) lost any of its wow-factor when it comes to stage spectacle.

And if it has (on second or third glance, depending on whether you've previously seen the long-running Broadway version or any number of road tours), well…the cast of this production can camouflage any concessions to economics by selling the material with typical Disney Theatrical Productions discipline and enthusiasm.

Their strong and secure performances are wrapped caringly in the now-iconic staging helmed by director/costumer/mask designer Julie Taymor, who moves the story along, briskly sampling from various disciplines of storytelling including puppetry, dance, movement, masks and scenic design.

All of that is buoyed by the hit songs Elton John and Tim Rice wrote for the original 1994 animated movie, such as "Circle of Life," "Hakuna Matata" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." But it is the visuals that cast a spell, shifting and sliding the audience's perspective and panorama with filmic fluidity, like a long dream sequence in front of an ever-changing mood ring of colors; sienna, gold, cerulean, clay, brick, berry, green.

There are moments that hang in the air and stick in the memory: lionesses hunting in perfect synced twirls and arabesques; graceful "grasses" headpieces and billowing "river" fabrics; parades of puppets down the aisles coming to honor the newly born lion cub Simba in this coming-of-age parable set among the animals of the African savanna.

Just like the movie, Simba (a bouncy Jordan A. Hall alternating with Tre' Jones) has his idyllic youth shared with playmate Nala (Nya Cymone Carter alternating with Tyrah Skye Odoms) interrupted by lessons on how to be a lion king from his father Mufasa (boom-voiced L. Steven Taylor). Simba's ascension is thwarted by his uncle Scar (a simpering, slithery, supercilious Patrick R. Brown) and his hyena henchmen (one of whom sounds just like comedian Wanda Sykes).

It's heavy stuff and a little scary for toddler-age viewers. Thank goodness for the comic relief from Mufasa's hornbill majordomo Zazu (Drew Hirshfield) and Simba's pals, the meerkat Timon (Tony Freeman filling in for Nick Cordileone on the official opening Friday night) and the warthog Poombaa (Ben Lipitz).

Even when Jelani Remy takes over the role of grown Simba, and Nia Holloway does the same for the Nala part, the cute factor is kept going to counteract all the Shakespearean tones, with groan-worthy puns and meta-jokes. For example, one character notices that a sequence "…wasn't in the movie" while later on another breaks out into a verse of "Let It Go" from Disney's latest hit, "Frozen."

There might not be many nifty little surprises like that in this almost-venerable-by-now musical, but when cannily deployed and paired with a nailed-it-down cast, it does the pride proud.

"The Lion King" runs through Feb. 1 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays (1 p.m. matinee on Wednesday, Jan. 28; no 6:30 p.m. performance Sunday, Feb. 1). Tickets cost $43.37-$117.71 (weekend V.I.P. up to $188.51). To order, call 800-745-3000 or go to BrowardCenter.org.

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