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Animals have human souls

There is an audible "Oooh!" of expectation as the lights dim and the curtain rises. A stunning sun ascends and the powerful voice of PhindileMkhize rings out. Pounding percussion introduces a parade of animals down the aisles. Children scream gleefully, witnessing a life-sized elephant stomp its way toward the stage. It's all-encompassing: Technicolor sights and sounds swirl around the audience in a magnificent spectacle.

Zebras, birds, looming giraffes, lions, and antelope frolic across the stage, joyfully yodeling "Circle of Life" as Pride Rock spins up into the air. The sky turns a brilliant blue as newborn Simba, heir to the throne, is presented to his future subjects.

"I think it's amazing!" says 8-year-old Justice Edwards. She is wide-eyed, leaning forward in her seat.

It premiered on Broadway in 1997. The Lion King is the story of Simba's journey from scared cub to savior king of the Pridelands. The show won six Tony awards, including Best Musical, Best Director for Julie Taymor, and Best Choreography for Garth Fagan.

Fagan does Rochester proud. He successfully combines African, modern, ballet, and hip-hop dance traditions. The dancers swing, twirl, flail, and jump with aggression, purpose, and grace.

Taymor worked with Michael Curry to design more than 200 imaginative masks and puppets --- including rod, shadow, and full-sized --- that transform the actors into an array of animals.

The actors working the puppets and wearing the masks are visible, so you have to suspend disbelief and buy into the idea that these are animals with human souls. The audience can choose to attend to the puppet face or the actor's face, both are entertaining and expressive.

All of the film's recognizable songs, written by Elton John and Tim Rice, are included, supplemented by South African musician Lebo M. His compositions are rhythmically fascinating, with lyrics combining Zulu, Sotho, and English; they lend authenticity to the Western score.

The actors and their characters are what endear. When asked about her favorite part of the show, Justice says, "When the meerkat was laughing." She explains that the meerkat is Timon, who, along with his gaseous sidekick Pumbaa the warthog, befriends Simba after he flees the Pridelands. Timon is played with verve by John Plumpis; Pumbaa is played by Ben Lipitz. Their bouncing rendition of "HakunaMatata" is all the audience could ask for.

When Mufasa (played with regality by Thomas Corey Robinson) is lured into a stampede to save his son, Simba, and is killed, successive rollers spin herds of wildebeests towards the audience, ending with running actors dressed in imposing African masks. It's a convincing illusion. The undulating drums end as young Simba discovers his father's body. This scene follows Mufasa singing "They Live in You" to Simba, imbuing his son with the knowledge of past generations that will save and inspire him.

Mark Cameron Pow plays Mufasa's personal assistant, Zazu. Pow walks a delicate line between English gentleman and jester. He flawlessly integrates his own body with that of his puppet, making its performance expressive. Yet it is PhindileMkhize, as the spiritual leader Rafiki, who steals the show. Her blast of energy and commitment physically affects the audience. As she belts "He Lives in You," asking Simba to look inside himself for the spirit of his father, she draws tears.

The Lion King's creativity, musicality, and story cross all age and gender barriers. It's a physically and emotionally overwhelming experience in the most powerful and positive of ways.

The Lion King through April 16 | Auditorium Theatre, 885 East Main Street | $22.50-$49.50 | 222-5000,

--- Erin Morrison-Fortunato

She might be a commie

Playwright Joan Holden took Barbara Ehrenreich's book about a social experiment --- to see if anyone can live on minimum-wage work --- and made it into the personal story of Barbara, an upper-middle-class woman delving into the working-class world.

It's not interesting because of the drama of Barbara's journey. It's interesting because Barbara, most likely, is us. We, sitting in the audience at a community theater, probably don't work for $6 an hour. More likely we are NPR listeners, New York Times readers, homeowners. We are Barbaras. And maybe, like Barbara, we've sometimes wondered how we would survive in the wilderness.

Barbara (Judy Molner) starts her experiment waitressing at Kenny's for $2.15 an hour plus tips. She moves to two other cities and works as a hotel maid, a housecleaner, a dietary aide, and a clerk at Mal-Mart, never making more than $7 an hour.

Molner has enough self-deprecating charm to invest a relatively flat character with life and handle the many asides to the audience. The rest of the cast is also excellent --- everyone plays multiple characters and does it with apparent ease.

The play is in some ways a condensation of the book, and it calls for quick scene shifts. Both set and direction can be a little bulky to pull that off. But the transitions get better in the second act, and Mal-Mart comes alive as a fluorescent wasteland.

In one scripted interruption, the actors step out of their characters to engage the audience in a discussion on class and wages. But it isn't necessary. There's far more power in the moments between Barbara and her coworkers. They don't want to talk back to the boss. They don't want to work faster for the same pay. They don't want to ask for maternity leave. And they certainly don't want to pick up her slack when she inevitably quits to go back to her real life.

At one point, Barbara gives a fellow waitress the keys to her trailer before she skips town. "Well, I guess we're even," Gail says.

Nickel & Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America through March 25 | Blackfriars Theatre, 28 Lawn Street | $22-$24 | 454-1260,

--- Erica Curtis