No Mane, No Gain: Impressive staging helps The Lion King flex its muscles.

The plot? Recycled. The characters? Cardboard. The opening number? Theater of the finest kind: With its puppets and its masks and its ritual-rooted style, Julie Taymor’s re-imagining of The Lion King completes its illusions by showing you how they’re made, which is more or less theater’s one essential gesture—and if ever I’ve seen, in the decade it’s taken for the show to make its way from Broadway to D.C., a stage illusion more choke-me-up wonderful than the giraffes who amble across a dawn-streaked stage to the opening chorus of “Circle of Life,” I’m damned if I remember it. There are less-thrilling moments, to be sure: Garth Fagan’s pretentious aerial ballet for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” not to mention that drippy Elton John-Tim Rice ballad itself, rank high among them, and I could do without the kid-actor showcase that is “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” (Though no doubt the show’s chief target demographic would beg to differ.) There’s a thrilling energy, courtesy of South African singer-songwriter Lebo M, in the Zulu-inspired chant-songs for the baboon shaman who ringmasters the story of doomed king Mufasa, wicked schemer Scar, and callow heir-apparent Simba. And there’s a propulsive urgency in the performances of the percussionists who punctuate almost every moment with a range of noises from the intimate to the grand. But the score as a whole still feels flabby, padded, written by committee. Yet again and again, Taymor and her creative team find comedy, ache, uplift, and wonder in storytelling tricks pillaged from a planet’s worth of theatrical traditions—Asian puppetry, African masks, British music-hall comedy, all woven tightly into the fabric of a quintessentially American form. In its finest moments—no, even in its middle-scale imaginings, as with anonymous ensemble members who somehow become herds of leaping gazelles, or flocks of savannah birds in flight—The Lion King can be utterly, goose-bumpily transporting. And as it turns out, I have seen an illusion as thrilling as the one that makes giraffes out of actors on stilts: It comes in the second act of this joy-filled musical, when an immense and benevolent spirit manifests itself in a swirling, star-strewn firmament, and for one fleeting, magical moment it’s like seeing the face of God.