The Lion King, at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Without director-designer Julie Taymor’s pageantry, this adaptation of the charming Disney cartoon would be a howling bore. Where the original was agile, the book lumbers. The music is overproduced but undercomposed, and Garth Fagan’s choreography is less interesting than the dancing on Soul Train. But the shadow puppets, the masks, the actors tricked out to look like giraffes, and the many other flashes of wizardry make everything else worth sitting through. Well, almost: a three-hour show tries the patience of most adults, let alone children of five or six. Even its high-energy cast, epitomized by the gloriously wicked Larry Yando as the lion who would be king, can’t quite sustain momentum–though new marvels of design early in act two and in the finale almost conceal the loss of steam.

What’s wonderful is that the show doesn’t have special effects in the Hollywood sense. It has stagecraft, the theater’s extraordinary way of using the unbelievable to portray the true. If The Lion King is the only show kids see this year, that would be a waste of more than money. But if it serves as a gateway to other theater–to Redmoon’s puppets and masks, to Lifeline’s big stories told in a tiny space, to Lookingglass’s gymnastics and circus moves used to communicate ideas and emotions–then it will be worth every dime.