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Can you feel the length tonight?

The Lion King has a shot at success here—but its running time could kill it

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Tshibi Manye, who plays Rafiki in the Broadway cast of The Lion King, performs a number during a preview event for the show, which will open in May 2009 at the Mandalay Bay Theatre.
Photo: Leila Navidi

My 9-year-old niece sat next to me at the Minskoff Theatre in New York City, utterly enthralled. Her widened eyes were glued to the visual feast before her, the mammoth puppets and the ebullient, multiethnic cast performing colorful, energetic song-and-dance numbers, the Elton John/Tim Rice score.

A few seats away from her, though, was a slightly different story. A middle-aged couple from Ohio watched at first attentively and then, as time went on, with some impatience. The woman, in fact, dug out her program and opened it to the page with the list of songs, trying to catch a little bit of light so she could figure out how many were left. I had made her acquaintance before the show started because she complimented my niece on her outfit, and so at intermission I wondered how she liked the show.

“Oh, it’s wonderful,” she said, “but maybe a little bit too long for me.”

The show, of course, was The Lion King, the production that aspires to be Las Vegas’ Next Big Thing when it arrives this spring at the Mandalay Bay. Along with the Cirque du Soleil Elvis-scored show coming to CityCenter, The Lion King is one of only two major entertainment premieres now on the 2009 calendar for the Strip. (Okay, there’s three if you’re willing to count that Scary Spice stripper show coming to the Planet Hollywood, but I’m not.)

Whenever a Broadway show is heading to Vegas, I like to get out and see it in its native habitat, New York. That way, I have a baseline to compare the quality of the performances and changes in the staging of the Vegas edition when it arrives.

And, of course, I get to begin to judge whether it’s going to succeed or fail in Las Vegas.

So here’s my current verdict: I agree with the lady from Ohio. Terrific show, needs to be shorter. And, oddly, there is some serious, baffling resistance to the shorter thing among the powers that be in The Lion King-dom.

Six years into the great Broadway-to-Vegas experiment, we have learned several things. We have two successful musicals to speak of, Mamma Mia! and Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular, and a third that looks like a winner but is still too young to be certain about, Jersey Boys. And we have at least five failures, Avenue Q, Spamalot, Hairspray, The Producers and We Will Rock You.

So what have we learned? First off, familiar and popular music is probably the most important secret to success, be it Abba, the Four Seasons or Andrew Lloyd Webber. A decent and easy-to-follow story is also necessary, seeing how the idiotic We Will Rock You couldn’t survive on its Queen tunes alone. Socially relevant themes are clunkers in a party town, per Hairspray and Avenue Q. And some genuine Vegas pizzazz creates all-important buzz, as in the case of Phantom and its thrilling $40 million reinvention of the chandelier crash. (Fake Vegas pizzazz, like the confetti at Hairspray, doesn’t cut it.)

The Lion King, then, is a fascinating entry that tests several theories at once. First, at least three of its songs are bona fide worldwide pop-music hits. That’s a pretty good head start. Second, it has the physical spectacle thing down pat; this strikes me as how Cirque du Soleil would do Broadway. The stage is swarmed by hundreds of fabulous costumes, some technologically complex, almost magical, puppetry and big dance numbers full of sex appeal. Finally, there’s no social preaching going on here; everyone knows the story because either they saw it in the most successful animated film ever or, better yet, they read it in English Lit 101 under its other name, Hamlet.

So there is only one thing that should hold The Lion King back: It’s just too long. Unnecessarily long. Disney and Mandalay Bay seem to already know this because they’re cutting it from its Broadway run length of 2:40 to a Vegas version at 2:20, both including intermissions. And that’s too long, too.

Lion King does Vegas

At 2 hours and 20 minutes, they’re asking Vegas tourists to spend almost a full hour more committed to this story than almost any other show and, for the first two-thirds, it’s also a pretty grim story.

True, Mamma Mia! runs at about that length and Mamma Mia! this weekend ends a nearly six-year run in the same theater. But The Lion King is no Mamma Mia! Every one of the 20 or so songs in Mamma Mia! are major pop hits. The Lion King has just three; none of the original music John and Rice penned for the Broadway show is even vaguely memorable.

With this in mind, I e-mailed the Disney folks about the length of the Vegas version without hinting at my own view. The answer was well-meaning but, I suspect, misguided and misunderstanding of this peculiar market.

“Disney Theatrical and Mandalay Bay did not want to present a ‘tab’ version of the production,” wrote Jack Eldon, vice president for touring productions, who will oversee the Vegas edition. “Rest assured, the production will be the full Broadway version as the one you saw this past week. … The public will indeed see the proper Broadway production at the Mandalay Bay Theatre.”

Uh, what’s wrong with a tab version? Vegas show-goers are not theater snobs. They want some good, fun entertainment that’s exciting to the eyes and easy on the brain and that also fits compactly into a Sin City night that also includes dinner out, gambling and clubbing. A 90-minute Vegas-standard show is not an insult to their intelligence any more than a half-hour sitcom is an insult to the intelligence of TV audiences.

It’s simply the convention here, and it works well. New York shows offer longer run times, incidentally, not because they so value art and the full telling of story. That’s a lie. Broadway shows run as they do because the theater needs the intermission to make money off overpriced tchotchkes. T-shirt and program sales are a modest profit center at the Mandalay Bay.

Eldon and his group would be wiser to cater specifically to the Vegas format. Phantom is a better, more digestible tale thanks to being shorn; director Hal Prince himself has said so. Trying to impress the Broadway folks by bringing genuine articles to Vegas is a waste of time and money; Harvey Fierstein and John Tartaglia can attest that their marquee names were worthless, high-brow extravagances on the Strip.

The Lion King may arrive at 2:20 and then learn I was right, but I fear it’ll be too late. First there will be press about the show’s troubles (see Spamalot), then there will be press about annoyed stars not wanting to debase their art by cutting it down (see Avenue Q). Neither is recoverable.

By bringing it here at 90 or 100 minutes, the Disney folks would be respecting, not insulting, Las Vegas. And, hey, the movie was only 89 minutes long, and that seemed to work out just fine.

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