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Backstage look at The Lion King setup at the Civic Center

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For four days now, theater fans have stampeded like wildebeests to see the national tour of "The Lion King" at the Des Moines Civic Center. Many of them saw it here in 2010 and many more — 113,000, in fact — saw its first visit, during a six-week run that still holds the Civic Center's sales record.

But the onstage and backstage numbers have always been more interesting. More than 225 puppets mimic 25 kinds of birds and beasts, from a 5-inch mouse to an 18-foot elephant with a 9-foot ear span. There are 39 hyenas, 15 gazelles and a dozen kite birds that spin around poles in the second-act opener.

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The tour's roster of 130-some employees includes 49 actors (including six South Africans), 19 wardrobe staffers, 18 orchestral musicians (including six locals), 11 carpenters, 10 electricians, five hair-and-makeup artists and three puppet surgeons in the backstage "puppet hospital."

And so on. The show's statistics are overwhelming, and as with any ballgame over at Principal Park, they can distract from the fun of the actual performance. Both kinds of cubs — Iowa and lion — played Thursday night, but only the kitty-cats scored a victory.

Their head coach, of course, is director Julie Taymor, whose bold original vision still holds up after 18 years. Her visual effects mix with Elton John and Tim Rice's familiar score to create a spectacular pageant, a parade around the African savannah to tell the story of the lion prince Simba, whose claim to rule the animal kingdom gets sabotaged by his nasty uncle. The story borrows heavily from Disney's 1994 movie (and loosely from "Hamlet") as it follows Simba's journey away from home and back again.

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Along the way he befriends a cheeky meerkat and a flatulent warthog, whose famous "Hakuna Matata" falls strangely flat at the end of the first act. The actors are gifted puppeteers — just watch the warthog's tongue — but of all the characters, these two stick the closest to the animated cartoon and are the least effective.

The show is better when it pulls away from the Disney cuteness and relies instead on the sights and sounds that only live theater can present: the stunning sunrise, the starlit sky, the South African chants that swell like the songs of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The baboon-shaman's famous Zulu cry, "Naaaaaaaants ingonyama, bagithi Baba!" ("Here comes a lion, Father!"), sets the "Circle of Life" spinning in a way that is still mesmerizing 18 years on.

A big part of the appeal comes from the way you can see both the puppets and the puppeteers. Your mind can toggle from one to the other or watch them both at the same time.

This particular touring cast benefits from the acting and singing talents of Patrick Brown, who plays Simba's sly uncle; Cameron Pow, as the uncle's right-hand bird; and Tshidi Manye, as that marvelous baboon. Jelani Remy lives up to the regal title role, and Nia Holloway makes a lovely lioness, both graceful and tough.

But for every star in the spotlight there are a dozen hustling behind the scenes to wrangle the puppets and cue the lights and comb the wigs and pound the drums. The lion is king, but his power comes from the kingdom.

'The Lion King'

WHEN: Through May 17, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. There is an extra 2 p.m. show on Thursday, May 14, and no 6:30 p.m. show on the final Sunday.

WHERE: Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St.

TICKETS: $31-$89.

INFO: www.desmoinesperformingarts.org

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