NEW YORK — The stage adaptation of "The Lion King" begins with a solitary figure silhouetted against the enormous sun that rises over the African veld. As the singer calls out her welcome, the animals of the "Circle of Life" enter from every corner of the theater. The opening is similar to the Disney film on which the show is based, but as the figures come down the aisles, the camaraderie uniting creatures great and small includes the audience.
More than a hundred animals will take to the stage, many of them a combination of actor and puppets or masks, devised by Julie Taymor and her collaborator, Michael Curry. Taymor has also directed the show and designed the costumes.
With each scene of the familiar story, new wonders are introduced. A tableau of grasslands turns into headdresses when a row of swaying dancers is elevated into sight. A stampede of wildebeests on rollers is graduated in size as if the animals were moving in from a distant plain.
The effects are so startling in their beauty that viewers might wish this performance were in a movie house where they could stay to see it again.
But Taymor's achievement is understanding the difference between film and stage, to ratchet up the highly successful animated work into an evening of musical theater that layers in subtext and meanings.
Unlike the cute cartoon figures of the Disney movie, the actors behind Taymor's masks and innovative puppets are always visible so that the moments of high emotion are on a personal level. When the mighty King of the Lions, Mufasa, dies, and Simba the lion cub mourns him, it is a real man we see lying there and a little boy grieving for his father.
The rainbow-colored pageantry that fills the stage, such as the sight the chorus makes in gorgeous jungle-flower costumes for the song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," alternates with quiet intimate moments, allowing viewers to identify with the animals.
In fact, the feelings ring so true that young children who can handle the film might be frightened by the reality of the stage experience.
Taymor is a master at transformations, which have been magnified here, thanks to Disney's deep pockets. Fans who saw her earlier works - last season's "Juan Darien" at Lincoln Center and the American Repertory Theatre's production of "The King Stag," among others - will be thrilled to see her expand into the space of the beautifully restored New Amsterdam house on 42nd Street.
Further amplifying Taymor's vision are the music, composed by Elton John, Hans Zimmer, Lebo M, Mark Mancina, and Jay Rifkin; lyrics by Tim Rice; the choral chanting; and dancing choreographed by Garth Fagan.
A brace of gifted actors leads the large cast. South African singer Tsidii Le Loka plays Rafiki, now a female soothsayer, rather than a baboon as in the film. Scott Irby-Ranniar, the young Simba, can sing, dance, and act with the best of them, sharing the role with Jason Raize as the adult. Heather Headley, Samuel E. Wright, John Vickery, Max Casella, and Tom Alan Robbins are other standouts in the troupe.
One of the show's themes is the anthem "Hakuna Matata," which translates into "no worries." The characters who belt out the rollicking song are not only describing their version of the easy life, but also betting on a long run for the production.
* Julie Taymor's book 'The Lion King: Pride Rock on Broadway' is being published by Hyperion.