Given all the preshow ballyhoo, Triangle audience expectations for the Broadway Series South presentation of Disney’s The Lion King, which officially opened Saturday night in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, were sky high; and the Gazelle Tour, produced by Disney Theatrical Productions, directed by Julie Taymor, and choreographed by Garth Fagan, actually exceeded them. Indeed, this magnificent musical extravaganza received an ecstatic and unusually lengthy standing ovation at the final curtain.

It is easy to see why The Lion King won the 1998 Tony Award® for Best Musical. Taymor and Fagan, who won 1998 Tonys for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography for The Lion King, are assisted on the current national tour by their fellow 1998 Tony winners for Best Scenic Design (Richard Hudson), Best Costume Design (Julie Taymor), and Best Lighting Design (Donald Holder). All of them have reproduced their theatrical magic for the Gazelle Tour of the best-selling (and still running) 1997 Broadway musical based on the Academy Award®-winning 1994 animated film. Moreover, Taymor also has created the spectacular costumes for the vivid characters of this memorable animal fable set in sub-Saharan Africa, and she has brilliantly collaborated with Michael Curry on a dazzling array of masks and puppets that capture the essence Disney’s animated characters. Indeed, the harnesses for the huge lion-head masks of Mufasa the Lion King (L. Steven Taylor) and his wonderfully wicked brother Scar (Dan Donohue) dangle the masks overhead but allow the actors to bring the masks down over their faces as they slink, cat-like, in and out of scenes.

From the awesome parade of the elephant (wow!) and the other animals in the opening number (“Circle of Life,” with “Nants’ Ingonyama”) to the robust reprises of “King of Pride Rock” and “Circle of Life” that close the show, The Lion King provides a sumptuous banquet for the eye and the ear. Indeed, not since the loading of Noah’s ark has there been such a stunning display of the infinite variety of the animal kingdom.

Set designer Richard Hudson and lighting designer Donald Holder combine to recreate the scenic vistas of morning, noon, and night in the Pridelands, the jungle, and the desert where the adventures of The Lion King unfold. The Pride Rock and Elephant Graveyard sets are particularly impressive.

The Gazelle Tour orchestra, conducted by Shelley Hanson, and the show’s singers perform the Elton John-Tim Rice et al. songbook with gusto; and The Lion King puppeteers expressively manipulate a variety of puppets of all different sizes throughout the show. The stampede scene—in which the thundering herd gets bigger and bigger and bigger as it closes in on Mufasa and Simba—is a masterpiece of the puppeteer’s art.

LaShanda Reese-Fletcher and especially Steven Taylor give regal performances as Queen Sarabi and King Mufasa; Mark Cameron Pow is a stitch as the king’s officious, high-strung, British-accented major domo Zazu the Hornbill; and Dan Donohue is thoroughly hissable as the villainous Scar. Phindile Mkhize is a wild child as Rafiki the Mandrill and chronicler of the lion clan, S.J. Hannah handles Simba’s comical odyssey and dark night of the soul with aplomb, John Plumpis is a scream as Timon the Meerkat, and Ben Lipitz is hilarious as Pumbaa the (flatulent) Warthog.

Chaunteé Schuler is suitably feisty as the easy-on-the-eyes grown-up version of Simba’s childhood friend and playmate Nala; and Jayne Trinette (Shenzi), James Brown-Orleans (Banzai), and especially Wayne Pyle (Ed) provoke big belly laughs with their bumbling antics as the sinister but clumsy and infernally stupid hyenas that Scar enlists in his plot to steal Mufasa’s throne and kill his cub and heir Simba. And Trevor Jackson and Cody Ryan Wise alternate as Young Simba and Olivia Ford and Zuri Reed alternate as Young Nala.

Disney’s The Lion King, which plays eight shows a week Tuesday-Sunday at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium through Oct. 22, is a royally entertaining musical for children of all ages—although some of the darker scenes may be a bit too much for easily frightened tots who have not been weaned on The Lion King movie. Don’t miss the musical event of the 2006 theater season.

Broadway Series South presents Disney’s The Lion King Tuesday-Friday, Sept. 19-22 and 26-29, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 23 and 30 and Oct. 7, 14, and 21, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 1, 8, 15, and 22, at 1 and 6:30 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $21.50-$126.50. Progress Energy Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates (for groups of 20 or more): 919/857-4565. Broadway Series South: [inactive 9/09]. Internet Broadway Database: Disney’s The Lion King (on Broadway): Disney’s The Lion King (U.S. Tour): The Lion King FAQ: [inactive 9/09]. Internet Movie Database: