A Magic Kingdom

THE CURTAIN RISES ON The Lion King. Onstage the day is dawning on Pride Rock, in the African savanna, and suddenly the theater's aisles are filled with a procession of animals, or rather life-size animal puppets: a giant elephant, moved by four actors inside its legs; giraffes, stepping with gingerly dignity on an actor's high-stilted legs and arms; an elegant cheetah, propelled by a panther-supple woman whose feet are the animal's rear paws; antelopes leaping in graceful arcs on the arms of dancers; plus lumbering buffaloes, prancing zebras, birds dipping and soaring high on flexible sticks. A summit of the animals: how else would Disney inaugurate its home in the beautifully refurbished New Amsterdam Theatre, on the new Times Square?

Let it be said at once that ""The Lion King'' is a great show, not just for the parents and kids who will flock to it (just as they did to the 1994 movie, which raked in more than $750 million wordwide) but for anyone drawn to a landmark event in American entertainment. The Disney organization (and especially its theatrical production chief, Thomas Schumacher) deserves credit for guts in this enterprise. It could have played it safe and assigned its veteran troops to do a live-action version of the movie, as it did with the successful ""Beauty and the Beast.'' Instead it chose Julie Taymor, a mainstay of the theatrical avant-garde, and by all accounts let her run with this $15 million production, the most expensive show ever. The result is a fusion of commerce and art (it already has an advance sale of nearly $20 million) sure to delight all but the stuffiest theater intellectuals, who will no doubt accuse Taymor of selling out.

But selling is not selling out. Taymor may have won a MacArthur ""genius'' grant, but ""The Lion King'' demonstrates that she's a master showman as well as a stage magician of incandescent imaginative power. As director, costume designer and codesigner (with Michael Curry) of the puppets, Taymor has created an entire world, Pridelands, where Simba the lion prince comes of age. She hasn't tried to turn the Disney cartooniverse into a Serious Symphony of mythic profundity. She didn't have to; from ""Snow White'' on, every Disney story has had those deeper meanings wrapped in the simple seductiveness of tale-spinning.

That's true of the book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, with its overtones of a leonine ""Hamlet.'' There's Simba, whose kingly father, Mufasa, is murdered by a jealous, evil uncle, Scar, who tries to off the royal heir, aided by his hyena henchmen. Something is rotten in the savanna, so Simba takes off with his sidekicks, Timon the veld-smart meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog, a nice guy who patiently bears the family curse of flatulence. Visited by his father's spirit and prodded by his gal pal Nala, the prince returns to save the despoiled realm and assume his rightful place, as Timon snappily puts it, ""at the top of the food chain.'' There's also Zazu, the royal family's major-domo, a gabby hornbill spouting unsolicited wisdom. The many toddlers in the audience don't know from ""Hamlet''; they do know the characters, whom they greet with delighted shrieks of recognition.

Taymor has beefed up the story's female presence, making Nala a much stronger character than she was on screen and promoting Rafiki the baboon soothsayer to a lady. ""Designer'' seems too weak a word for what Taymor does with these characters. She's a creator of identities, using makeup, costumes and marvelous masks in an enchanting mix of animal and human qualities. Pumbaa looks like Miss Piggy's slob country cousin. The hyenas are three scavenging stooges, their doggy mugs slavering with hunger. The comic actors make the classic Disney anthropomorphism both funny and touching. The lions fare less well: Samuel E. Wright is locked into Mufasa's inflexible regality, and John Vickery's Scar is one instance where the Disney animators have beaten Taymor with their serpentine villain.

Taymor, 44, has always seen faces as miniature theaters. As a little girl in Boston she would ask her mother to make faces, which she would try to draw. Drawn to the theater of the East, with its puppets, masks and shadow plays, she studied in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. There she was captivated by the theater that is ""part of the everyday fabric of society,'' as she put it in an online interview. Somewhat nettled by the ""noncommercial'' label, she likes to point out that she has done operas bigger than ""The Lion King'': ""The Magic Flute'' in Italy with a cast of 80, ""The Flying Dutchman'' in Los Angeles with 100 people. Taymor also spurns terms like ""puppeteer,'' saying it ""sounds like a Mouseketeer,'' which is a funny crack coming from Disney's big hope. She prefers to be called ""a theater maker.''

The term is clunky but accurate. In ""The Lion King'' all the senses come together in flashpoints that can explode nowhere but on a live stage. Garth Fagan's choreography gives the show an African pulse that the movie lacked. And Taymor treats the music by Elton John and Tim Rice with the same expressive sensitivity that she gives Mozart or Wagner. Max Casella and Tom Alan Robbins sing the meerkat-warthog credo ""Hakuna Matata'' (""no worries'') like the carefree Broadwayites in ""Guys and Dolls.'' There are new songs by John and others, including the beautiful ""Shadowland,'' sung by Nala after Scar has reduced Pridelands to a desert.

But it's Taymor's visual magic that's unprecedented in Broadway musicals. There's a stampede by wildebeests that seem to be thundering toward the fleeing Simba. A pride of female lions mourns his supposed death, pulling white ribbons from their eyes to simulate unextinguishable tears. The vast earth- and skyscapes by Taymor, scenic designer Richard Hudson and lighting designer Donald Holder have the burning intensity of paintings by a master of color like Mark Rothko. Taymor's wizardry reaches a peak in her staging of ""He Lives in You,'' in which a fiery cosmos of stars slowly assembles to form a huge image of the dead Mufasa's face.

Only a cosmic calamity can prevent ""The Lion King'' from being a historic success. Road productions are anticipated within a year, starting in Los Angeles or Toronto. Disney, secure in its beachhead on the most storied corner of the American theater, has upped the ante on the resurging American musical. It gambled gutsily with Taymor, thereby establishing a standard it won't be easy to maintain. For some people the presence of the giant Disney store that connects with the New Amsterdam raises the specter of the company that sometimes values merchandising more than creativity. ""The Lion King'' shows it can have both.